Ever since 1962, when the first industrial robot was installed on an assembly line at a General Motors plant in New Jersey, machines have been replacing human workers. In the decades that came after, just about every industry became automated to a greater or lesser extent.
For the most part, we humans have adapted nicely. Robots could do only simple tasks, so by upgrading our skills through training and education, our living standards continued to rise. Yet more recently, that’s begun to change.
As Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson point out in their new book, The Second Machine Age, machines are beginning to take over cognitive tasks and now algorithms are even doing the work of highly skilled professionals like doctors, lawyers and creative people. If you want to avoid being replaced by a robot these days, you’d better learn the right kind of skills.
Going Beyond The Same Old Routine
In the age of industrial robots, the question of who would lose out was fairly simple. It was mostly physical labor that was getting replaced, so if you were a manual laborer working in a factory, you were at risk. If you were working in an office doing cognitive tasks, you could assume that you were reasonably safe.
Yet as MIT’s David Autor points out in a rigorous analysis of the polarization of the US labor market, the division is no longer between manual and cognitive tasks as much as it is between routine and non-routine work. So clerical workers, such as bookkeepers and travel agents have suffered, but financial analysts and wedding planners have done well.
In fact, I heard something similar from Lynda Chin at MD Anderson when I talked to her work about her hospital’s work with IBM’s Watson program to develop an Oncology Expert Advisor. She said that while most doctors work on routine cases, there was a great need for expert advice when something rare came up.
Another way to look at it is that humans are not being paid for their work anymore as much as they are being paid to solve problems. So if you’re a travel agent, you can forget about being paid to book flights, you better learn how to plan the one-of-a-kind vacation that your clients always dreamed of. Better yet, learn how to suggest one they never thought of.
Learning To Ask Questions Instead Of Give Answers
It used to be that the smartest guy in the room was the one who had all the answers. Knowing a lot of information was what got you good grades on tests, gave you access to top universities and propelled you into a lucrative career. Yet even a genius from 20 years ago can’t match a normal teenager today armed with a smartphone.
In truth, humans are pretty lousy information processors. We have fairly low capacity, error-prone memories and absolutely horrific abilities in calculation. Computers, however excel at those things.
However, as McAfee and Brynjolfsson point out in their book—and I think this is one of their most salient points—computers are still very poor at asking insightful questions. They solve the problems we tell them to, but aren’t very good at deciding which problems to pursue.
It’s no longer that important what you know, but identifying what you don’t know that could be important is becoming an essential skill.
Improving Your Social Skills
When someone asks you how you’re doing, it’s considered a pleasantry. When a computer does it, it’s considerably less charming. That’s because we know a computer doesn’t really care. Getting to know us adds to a machine’s existence, but human contact is something we crave and, in fact, need.
Richard Florida points out in an insightful article that, as many jobs are becoming automated, social skills are becoming increasingly important—and marketable. Autor’s labor report also bears this out, showing that personal services has been the fastest growing job category over the last decade.
When I was growing up, yoga instructors, personal trainers and personal shoppers were rare, but now it seems like everyone has them. The development of instructional videos, e-commerce and, more recently, wearable devices can’t replace the human touch.
Unfortunately, due to the legacy of treating professionals as information processors, many jobs that emphasize social skills are poorly paid. Yet, Zeynep Ton’s new book, The Good Jobs Strategy, shows that even in retail, firms that invest in higher salaries and better training tend to outperform ones that don’t.
The New Economy of Intent
The future is always uncertain and even McAfee and Brynjolfsson don’t pretend to have all the answers. Yet a few things are already very clear. The first is that things will move much, much faster than they used to and we’ll have less time to react to changes. We must learn to prepare, rather than plan for the future.
The second is that our value will be determined not by how much we know or even how hard we work, but how well we collaborate with machines and with each other. We will need to focus on the things that machines can’t do well, such as understanding other people’s needs and desires and imagining how we can change things for the better.
That’s the ironic thing about the new age of machines. By automating tasks, we are liberating human imagination and the human spirit. The more we unlock the secrets of technology, the more we find ourselves.
Greg Satell is an authority on digital strategy and innovation. His blog is Digital Tonto and you can follow him on Twitter.