Technology

What’s really behind our automation anxiety about the future of work?

Scare stories abound about how robotics and machine learning will destroy jobs. But lack of investment in IT is the real thing to worry about, argues James Woudhuysen

Most of the literature on the future of work has been all too familiar until fairly recently: mobile working, working from home, hot-desking, teams, fun interiors to catalyse creativity, and so on. In fact many of these ideas were first fielded in the stimulating work of Philip J. Stone and Robert Luchetti (1), if not in the equally stimulating discussion of ‘adhocracy’ of the late Alvin Toffler (2).

The basic myth in many contemporary accounts is to believe that workplace layout and facilities, and IT, will determine the future of work. Influential lobbies – designers and architects – like to convince one of this. Even more important, Silicon Valley does the same.

Deep changes in human psychology

Yet the reality is that it’s human beings that determine life at work, and in that domain – HR, psychology – the changes are much deeper, and much less noticed, than those in IT and space. The 360-degree Appraisal, How to Manage Your Manager, Not Winding Up In Court Because Of Duty-Of-Care Responsibilities, Not Being Seen To Let your Mates Down, Acting Up (But With No Increase in Salary) – these are the really important departures.

I said ‘until fairly recently’. However, in line with the deterministic outlook mentioned above, the view now is that IT will destroy jobs. The Oxford Martin Institute kicked it all off in 2013 by famously suggesting that 47 per cent of US jobs were at risk because of automation (3). Since then Oxford Martin Institute has teamed up with Citi (2015) to say the same will happen in ‘perhaps a decade or two’ or ‘soon’ (4).

The ambiguity is telling. Careful inspection of those papers and others like them (5) shows that the authors understand very little about IT, and still less about ‘intelligence’. They eulogise algorithms as unbiased, forgetting that it takes human beings, with all their biases, to write an algorithm. Nor do they seem to have noticed that unemployment is at very low levels in the US and the UK, as well as in some parts of Europe.

Investment crisis, not an automation one

The main thing to remember is that, in Britain, America and even Germany – as well as India – we have an investment and productivity crisis, not a problem of what John Maynard Keynes termed, in his Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren (1930), technological unemployment (6).

It is precisely this investment crisis, along with the short-termism that McKinsey calls ‘quarterly capitalism’ (7) and the consequent demand for moment-to-moment agility in corporations (8), which will ensure a rosy future for ‘staffing industry’ labour suppliers such as Adecco, Kelly or Korn Ferry. Mainstream companies will want to stay flexible, keep their cash in the bank, and take on staff only as and when.

Breakthroughs are happening in fields such as wearables, Big Data and the Internet of Things, machine learning, the machine reading of facial expression, Virtual Reality, voice operation, translation, robots and 3D printing.

They are not happening in intelligence, and arguably never will do – whatever the wins at games registered by IBM’s Watson and DeepMind’s AlphaGo. For example, construction of the massive datasets of pictures and speech that comprise machine learning does not amount to building real intelligence – the sort that can handle non-routine cognitive and manual tasks. Nor can machine learning recall episodic memories or do unsupervised learning (9).

Still, it’s vital to keep track of advances in these smaller fields, both to log the pace of advance and to appreciate the barriers to take-up – whether technical, financial, regulatory or psychological.

Until these breakthroughs take place and are coordinated in a brilliant manner so as to create whole new industries with great jobs in them, the pattern in the West will be greater labour utilisation, not automation. Brexit and Trump are set to arrest patterns of migration and could bring a slump – but most likely the joblessness created would not be technological

Myths and realities

Myths and unjustified fears about IT have eclipsed the realities of today’s dearth of capital expenditure – and the much more justified worries that should attend this dearth. Anxiety about automation is a kind of displacement activity.

We don’t feel good about inequality and humanity’s effect on the environment; so, because we feel alienated from our creations in general and IT in particular, we like to blame IT for an Armageddon that exists only in our imaginations, not in reality.

In fact, society needs to invest more and more properly in IT. By confronting real problems, not imagined ones, it can improve its prestige and its morale.

References

(1) ‘Your office is where you are’, Harvard Business Review, March/April 1985.

(2) Future Shock, Random House, 1970.

(3) Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A Osborne, ‘The future of employment: how susceptible are jobs to computerisation?‘, 2013.

(4) Citi Global Perspectives and Solutions, Technology at work: the future of innovation and employment, City GPS, February 2015.

(5) For a critique of Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee’s equally seminal and equally misguided book The second machine age: work, progress, and prosperity in a time of brilliant technologies (2014), see James Woudhuysen, ‘IT’s not the future’, July 2014, http://www.woudhuysen.com/its-not-the-future.

(6) John Maynard Keynes, Economic Possibilities for our Granchildren (1930).

(7) Dominic Barton, ‘Capitalism for the long term’, Harvard Business Review, March 2011

(8) See for example John P Kotter’s snappily titled Accelerate: building strategic agility for a faster-moving world, Harvard Business Review Press, 2014.

(9) Gill A Pratt, ‘Is a Cambrian explosion coming for robotics?’, Journal of Economic Perspectives, Volume 29, Number 3, Summer 2015.

James Woudhuysen is Visiting Professor of Forecasting and Innovation at London South Bank University, He was a keynote speaker at WORKTECH Munich 2018