It was the year 1908. Ford Motor Company introduced Model T which became the first affordable and mass-produced automobile in the world. The same year, the animals most affected by this new means of transport, horses from around the world, gathered in a convention to discuss this new technology. While some horses believed that Model T would make them undesired, others held the idea that technology would make their lives easier and there would be more jobs than ever because of the rising human population.
Cut to the year 2017. The fact remains that horse population saw its peak in 1915 and never recovered thereafter. So if the automobiles, by focusing on efficiency and affordability for the average consumer, could completely replace the horses as the means of transport, would it be a big assumption to think that the advent of artificial intelligence would not affect our jobs at all?
If the threat is real, what should we do about it? Should we deny or resist the developments in artificial intelligence or should the status quo be maintained? What can be done to not only stay relevant to the needs of our times but also equip our future generations with the skills to help them flourish in their times?
The Idea of Economic Value
It is important to understand the idea of value if our ultimate intention is to stay economically valuable or indispensable in the upcoming decades. Value of an offering (product or service) is not objective; it is not its price. It has nothing to do with the number of man-hours required to produce it or the cost of energy that went into providing that offering. Value is subjective. It is so dependent on the preferences of the valuer that an identical offering is valued differently by all the valuers. Your culinary skills might be of no use to your employer in real estate, but might be invaluable to a choir that is looking for a singer.
So when an employer feels that the services offered by the employees are less economically valuable than a computer program which delivers the same outcome either more efficiently or more effectively, the employees will be replaced. There is neither selfishness nor malice on part of the employer. This is no different than the choice made by us when faced with two completely identical products but with different price tags.
It’s a paradox that while people are on the buyer side of the goods market they prefer to get the best return on their money but expect the buyers of the job market to act against their own interests when they themselves are on the seller side of the job market.
The Rise of People-value Advisors
Changes in technology have always been accompanied by changes in the organization of work, the content of jobs and the drivers of growth. Researchers Osborne and Frey presented a paper titled The Future of Unemployment wherein they estimated the probability of computerisation for 702 occupations and inferred that 47% of the total US employment was at risk.1 With such a large scale change in the organization of work, the onus would be on the Human Resource professionals of various organizations to facilitate this change as smoothly as possible.
The role of the Human Resource professionals would be “to help facilitate humans in the creation of value for their organizations and society”. Creation of value would become so fundamental to their profession that it would not be a surprise if they ask to be called People-value Advisors rather than HR managers or People managers. Although HR professionals will be more equipped to take up this role, anyone who thoroughly understands the fundamentals of economic-value creation and intricacies of human psychology shall be able to contribute meaningfully to other individuals, organizations, communities and governments.
Contribution towards Individuals
With employees spending around 50 hours each week at their jobs2, which may be higher than what they spend with their loved ones, their response to the “loss of job” shouldn’t be essentially different from that of the “loss of a loved one”. People affected by automation may go through the same stages of grief as predicted by Kubler-Ross Model for the loss of a loved one.
· Denial about the ability of AI to actually replace jobs or believing that just because humans created machines, machines cannot replace any jobs
· Anger directed towards their organizations for not considering their loyalty or toward the governments for not intervening to save their jobs
· Bargaining with the government to make retrenchment laws more stringent or to be their employer of last resort
· Depression resulting from the perceived absence of control over the course of their lives or simply, over the job market
· Acceptance of the capabilities of upcoming technologies and embracing the new reality as the permanent reality
It is possible that different groups within the workforce may spend varying amounts of time in one or more of these stages. While the corporates might spend their resources in lobbying for more effective policies and university students might choose to stage “anti-robot” campaigns across campuses, others might just sink into depression after realizing their helplessness. People-value advisor can play an important role in helping the employees to make a conscious transition through these various stages as smoothly as possible because the sooner the workforce accepts the inevitable reality of the future, the more time they have at hand to adapt, retrain and keep themselves economically valuable.
The problem faced by people-value advisors would be to change how people perceive their “work”. We spend so much of our adult lives working, that we believe that “what you do is not just a job, or a career–it’s a part of you.” We derive meaning from the work that we do and an instance of job loss translates into a loss of identity.
An important breakthrough can be made if people start defining work as a set of actions that add value rather than tasks and activities that we routinely do. For example, does a cab driver actually ‘work’ if driverless cars become better than human drivers? No, because the service that the human driver provides is no longer valuable. Driving could then become a hobby, a sport or a hardwired habit; not work.
Contribution to Communities
We often hear conversations revolving around questions like, “What is your dream job?” or “What job do you aspire to in future?”. But such questions would become less relevant in the future as the benefits of technology become more widely and economically available, and as jobs become so dynamic that it becomes difficult to guarantee the existence of a job beyond certain years. In such an uncertain environment we would need people-value advisors to help communities to overhaul their belief systems and address those misbeliefs that hinder them from embracing the change.
· Computerized Jobs ? Unemployed People
The findings of studies like that of Osborne and Frey become unnerving only when the prediction of jobs being computerized is wrongly equated to people being unemployed. “All the jobs of telemarketers will vanish!” is certainly different from “All the telemarketers will be unemployed!”. Those prone to computerization, like telemarketers, can certainly find new ways of creating value for the society.
· Economic growth ? More jobs
The aim of any business is not employment creation. More employment can only be a consequence rather than a prerequisite of a growing business because the number of people employed for work is never a metric for measuring the success of a business. The metric is how efficiently and effectively the business utilizes the available resources and whether it generates value for the society.
· End of work ? End of life
For some, the occupations that they pursue or the efforts that they put to earn their livelihood is what gives them a meaning in life. Automation does not mean that we cannot do work that gives meaning to our lives; it just means we won’t get paid for it. Struggling artists, artists who love what they do but still don’t get paid enough, have been a part of the society ever since the birth of art itself.
Contribution to governments
All the previous arguments and expectations are founded on one undeniable assumption that “people will adapt”. And to be able to successfully adapt, it is not just the ability or willingness of an individual or an organization that matters; the external environment plays an important role too.
Since people react and adapt either in response to a change or in an expectation of a change in environment, and since the governments are the most powerful controllers (or dampeners) of the social or business environment, it makes their role all the more important. We would need people-value advisors within the governments to address the “issues of human resource” that they govern.
Accountability & Ethics
Who would be held responsible if a self-driving car hit an innocent pedestrian causing severe harm? The passenger, the car manufacturing company, the programmer or the intelligent car itself?
There can be numerous novel variations to this and other scenarios to raise questions about accountability and legal responsibility of the artificially intelligent systems of the future. A simple rule of thumb can be used to address this issue: The final user of the AI shall be responsible for its behaviour. The passengers of the car consciously chose to deploy a self-driving car instead of driving themselves. It was their decision to buy a car with a particular processing power and particular safety features. So everything that the AI does will be answerable by its owners.
The onus would be on the governments of the future to proactively design systems that protect the rights to life and private property of the population rather than blaming the consequences on the inevitability of technology.
The Wrong Way to Save Jobs
It is not uncommon for us to seek the help of the government whenever we feel the threat of unemployment. The government either responds by bringing in regulations that make it difficult to fire the employees or by bringing in schemes like universal basic income. The intention of such measures is to provide a “cushioning effect” against the changing environment i.e. to insulate us from the socio-cultural and economic shocks of change.
The harm caused by regulations that create barriers for the employers to fire employees of less value is two-fold. Firstly, it hinders the employers to hire new employees who have the potential to create more value than the incumbents. This means that valuable human resource has to stay out of work only because of government regulations in spite of the employers’ willingness to hire them. Secondly, the incumbents do not feel the pressure to improve or change themselves. Since this cushioning is only temporary, they face a shock of higher intensity when they finally leave the workforce.
Another approach is to provide a universal basic income or guaranteed employment. And the concept of “value” again comes handy while evaluating these options.
Do those getting universal basic income create any value in return for the income? If the answer is in negative, the scheme is not sustainable because $100 get devalued to $0 in the long term if distributed to everyone. Do the governments promising guaranteed employment create true employment? Is it true employment if the 1 million farm ponds3, created using more than 47 billion USD under National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (India), are valuable to no one? If the answer is negative, then we are not only draining our wealth at wrong places but we are also making are human resource obsolete by cushioning it from the environment and not letting it learn to adapt.
The Catch & the Conclusion
The catch in this plan is that this inevitable transition could be made possible, without a major social or economic crisis, only if these individuals, whom we call people-value advisors keep assessing their own jobs from time to time in order to ensure that they really add value.
And the biggest takeaway from this article would be that we still have time. Although the progress in artificial intelligence has started to affect the kind of jobs we do and the way we do them, we still have time to decide how we move forward. We can either try to compete with these intelligent programs in routine jobs that add nominal value or we can try to learn skills that add real value to our fellow beings. We need to move to jobs that take thought and emotions both as input; we need more recreational therapists, mental health counsellors, dance choreographers, designers, curators and yes, more people-value advisors.
1 Carl Benedikt Frey, Michael A. Osborne, Oxford Martin School, University of Oxford, Oxford OX1 1PT, United Kingdom Department of Engineering Science, University of Oxford, Oxford OX1 3PJ, United Kingdom Received 24 September 2015, Accepted 19 August 2016, Available online 29 September 2016
2 Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
3 Union Budget of India 2017-18