Welcome to the era of blended workforces, where intelligent machines and humans combine to accelerate business success.
In short, now that we have increasingly capable robots and artificial intelligence (AI) systems – capable of taking on tasks that were once the exclusive domain of humans – it is easier than ever for organizations to leverage intelligent machines. But that leaves employers with some important questions to answer: How do you find the right balance between smart machines and human intelligence? What roles should machines be given? And which roles are best suited for humans?
The first step: Understanding what machines can do
Particularly in traditional companies, business leaders are often not up to the wide range of tasks that today’s AIs and intelligent robots can take on. (I actually spend a lot of time educating executives in this area.) This knowledge is critical to finding the right balance between humans and machines in your organization.
Some of the things that AIs and AI-enabled robots can do are pretty mind-boggling. For example, AIs can now read, write, see, speak and even understand emotions. While this sounds impressive, AIs are more often than not taking one type of input (whether it’s visual data, written data, or whatever) and generating a specific output as programmed. Once you understand this basic input-to-output idea, there is potential to automate all sorts of tasks that follow this same model, such as checking security videos for suspicious behavior, moderating online content, answering simple customer questions, enter data and keep accounting records, and so on.
As Stanford professor Andrew NG puts it: “If a typical person can do a mental task with less than a second of thinking, we can probably automate it using AI now or in the near future.” In other words, human jobs that are built into some sort of input-to-output scenario are likely to be automated in the future.
So what will happen to the human workers?
In light of this wave of automation, human work will be affected in three main ways:
· Displacement of human jobs. According to the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report 2020, 85 million jobs could be replaced by automation by 2025 – a truly staggering number. Naturally, this creates a lot of fear around automation. But while many jobs will be replaced, it is important to note that even more jobs will be added or created due to the adoption of the technology. Which leads us to…
· Increase in human jobs. Here, many jobs will be changed in some way by automation. According to the WEF, by 2025, time spent on current tasks at work by humans and machines will be equal. This means employers must strike the perfect balance between human- and machine-done tasks. In other words, we need to ensure that the work given to machines is better suited to machines, and the work given to humans is better suited to humans (so that humans don’t end up feeling like machines).
· Addition of new human jobs. Eventually, new jobs will emerge that did not exist before. While the WEF estimates that 85 million jobs could be displaced, it also estimates that 97 million new jobs could emerge – jobs better suited to the new division of labor between humans and machines. These new human roles are likely to rely on a slightly different set of skills and abilities compared to those skills that have traditionally been prioritized in the past.
All of this means employers have a responsibility to equip their workforce with the skills needed for the fourth industrial revolution. What kind of skills are we talking about? Well, with machines increasingly taking over easily automated input-to-output work, it’s the inherently human skills that will become increasingly valuable in the workplace. Things like empathy, creativity, critical thinking, emotional intelligence, communication and complex decision making, to name just a few.
“Responsible automation” in practice
Stitch Fix is a fashion signature box that uses AI to choose clothes customers will love. But the company doesn’t just rely on AI to do this; it’s the perfect combination of AI and human stylists that makes the service so impressive.
At Stitch Fix, machines do the initial work of processing massive amounts of data and assessing the likelihood that a customer will love a certain style, based on the customer’s information, preferences and past choices. A human stylist then finalizes the selection and writes a personal note advising the customer on how to style the items.
To me, this is a fantastic example of how to get the most out of machines and humans, and it’s something that many organizations can learn from. This perfect symbiosis between intelligent machines and capable humans is called by the automation pioneers Faethm as “responsible automation”. Faethm is on a mission to ensure automation is done in a way that doesn’t leave humans behind, and the company’s approach involves breaking work into chunks of tasks to see what can and cannot be automated. Done this way, automation – at least according to Faethm – doesn’t have to result in job losses. Instead, humans transition to more rewarding tasks.
The main lesson here is that organizations should start to identify the tasks best suited to machines so that those tasks can be automated, leaving humans to do the more complex and rewarding work. In addition, employers must equip their workforce with the skills that will be essential for success in the 21road century.
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