One machine can do the work of fifty ordinary men. No machine can do the work of one extraordinary man.
– Elbert Hubbard, author, publisher, philosopher, artist
Though digital innovations are opening up new frontiers for employment, experts warn that not everyone will benefit equally. People in every industry are increasingly concerned about the possibility of being replaced by a machine. According to a recent Oxford University study on advanced automation, the next generation has reason to be concerned about its future. How can its members compete against artificial intelligence and a workforce with fewer positions? Machines can calculate faster than the human brain and store more information. Advanced technology can now perform tasks that just 10 years ago would have seemed like science fiction: computers can drive our cars, create art, and with advanced algorithms have the potential to make simultaneous decisions far faster and more accurately than the brainiest humans.
In their recent Harvard Business Review article, “Man and machine: Knowledge work in the age of the algorithm,” authors and professors Thomas Davenport and Julia Kirby present a realistic strategy for remaining gainfully employed in an era of very smart machines. Addressing the common concern that many of the things executives do could now be done by machines, the authors reframed the problem, looking for cases where knowledge workers collaborate with machines to do things that neither could do as well on their own. They suggest we look for opportunities to “augment the machines. In other words, you can avoid being outpaced or replaced by a machine even if you aren’t a computer engineer by developing certain skills that allow you to partner with machines; building your soft skills (interpersonal skills, judgment and empathy) along with hard skills (computer coding) and an innovative mindset will give you a competitive advantage in most every field.”
Overcome automation anxiety and fear of worker displacement
David Autor, an economist at MIT, points out that, “When it comes to flexibility, judgment, or common sense, computers don’t compensate for programmer oversights and errors, nor do they improvise solutions for unexpected cases. Computers follow procedures meticulously laid out by programmers. For a computer to accomplish a task, a programmer must first fully understand the sequence of steps required to perform that task, and then must write a program that, in effect, causes the machine to precisely simulate these steps.” For this reason, Autor explains, humans still have an advantage over the machines.
Autor says we should search for the complementarities to “deepen the work humans do today using computers.” While computer software may do the more difficult cognitive aspect of your job, there will be jobs for people capable of more big-picture thinking and a higher level of abstraction than computers. People will need to pick up at the point where the math leaves off; the machine could produce a hypothesis and then the human investigates its viability, factoring in variables less easily detected by computers, things that tie to social and creative intelligence, perception and manipulation.
Kirby and Davenport say today’s knowledge workers need to see machines as collaborators and partners in creative decision-making. They offer these five steps to realign your contributions to remain employable and say that these principles apply to a wide range of professions:
Five strategies to renegotiate your relationship to machines
1. Step up
Become better at considering the big picture than a computer. If you’re a brand manager, for instance, you may need to get an MBA or a Ph.D to gain a broader perspective on your work.
2. Step aside
Focus on working well with other people and understanding your own interests, goals and strengths.
3. Step in
Understand how software makes routine decisions, so you monitor and modify its function and outputs.
4. Step narrowly
Specialize in something for which no computer program has yet been developed.
5. Step forward
Become a digital innovator: write the code and design the conditions under which it will be applied.
Computer and technical literacy is critical
People who combine computer literacy and social intelligence with other disciplines will be in high demand and shine in the workplace. Through increasing your computer literacy, learning to code, web design, and/or instruction in robotics, you’ll have a better chance of troubleshooting and adapting to the new developments in your work place. Those who are capable of building new websites, managing corporate social media plans, creating new products, novel services, improved user interfaces and fresh ideas will be more employable.
Fortunately, for those interested in gaining more technical knowledge the range of offerings could meet any budget. Consider updating your computer knowledge by taking free online courses in coding from Coursera.org, Khanacademy.org, and Girlswhocode.com,or pay for coursework using Lynda.com or through enrolling in a formal university program. The advantages of free online courses include flexibility and instruction at your own pace. They also provide instructors who are respected professionals in their fields and are passionate about sharing their expertise.
People can maximize their employability by adapting to change in this accelerating technological era. There will always be a need for a “human touch.” Seek a growing industry that excites you and is one in which your strengths will complement what machines do. When you find a way to blend your social intelligence, creativity and technical skills, you can make yourself a much more valuable asset to a worthy employer.