The Upside of People

By Robert Hickson 08/06/2015

There may be some schadenfreude going around following the recent DARPA rescue robot challenge


But some, at least, will rise again.

There is still a lot of hand wringing about the impact that robots, algorithms, and artificial intelligence may have on the human workforce. I’ve noted this previously. National Public Radio in the US has put together a nifty website to illustrate what jobs may become automated, based on the analysis of Frey & Osborne [Pdf]. It is important to note though that Frey & Osborne’s conclusions are derived from a model and don’t represent manifest destiny. There have been many commentaries based on Frey & Osborne’s results, but not many alternate models or assumptions tested.

Davenport & Kirby, writing in the Harvard Business Review,  take a rather more upbeat view of how humans may fare in the future. While noting that machines continue to move along the spectrum of taking over dirty, dangerous, dull and decision-making jobs, they suggest machines/algorithms should best be viewed from the perspective of how they can best augment human skills rather than as replacements for people altogether. In good HBR-speak they focus on strategies to avoid being made redundant – stepping up, aside, in, narrowly, or forward. All good for the readers of the HBR, but probably not so helpful for others facing lay-offs or in minimum wage jobs.

The point is valid though that employers, employees, and policy makers all need to be thinking harder about the types of meaningful work people will have in the near future. Rather than focussing on what jobs will machines take over, we should be thinking more about what are the meaningful and productive activities that are required to support happy, healthy, cohesive and creative communities.

What about New Zealand?

Overall, New Zealand’s labor productivity is low compared to the rest of the OECD, and we are on a downward trend. Just replacing farmers and low value manufacturing with robots won’t have much impact on productivity. We still need to figure out what we can produce or provide that others elsewhere are willing to pay lots of good money for, and be able to build the firms that can deliver these.

Davenport & Kirby point out that:

… the emphasis has to be on the upside of people. They will always be the source of next-generation ideas and the element of operations that is hardest for competitors to replicate.

So rather than, al la The Graduate, one word of advice about the future being “robotics” (or AI, drones, 3D printing, apps, etc), it has and probably always will be about big ideas, addressing unmet needs, and building better mouse traps.