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How to flourish in a new age of automation

Published by Mediatel August 2015

Ways of thinking: the behavioural economist's view

Technology is a double-edged sword. While the mobile computer we hold in our hands has automated and simplified a massive number of physical and cognitive human tasks, the consequences of this on employment and business have largely been felt in manufacturing and by blue-collar jobs.

In our world, marketing jobs have been under threat, courtesy of outsourcing and offshoring, but soon we’ll feel the force of automation and artificial intelligence (AI) on jobs that currently call on degree-level education and supposedly uniquely human skills. As Brynjolfsson and McAfee asked in The Second Machine Age, have we reached the stage when technology is destroying more jobs than it's creating?

The time has come to ask: how can jobs flourish in an age of automation?

A number of pioneering minds (including Prof Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and Bill Gates) have expressed doubts about the next generation of AI. It’s all too easy to get caught up in an apocalyptic, sci-fi fuelled point of view, but is the only alternative to keep our heads in the sand?

My investigations have exposed three main biases, which confirm marketers’ view of the world, and prevent us from fully confronting the issue of how to plan ahead for a new age of automation:

1. “Not in my lifetime”

Is human evolution the yardstick by which to measure advances in computing technology? It’s accepted that technology has progressed humanity more so in the last 200 years than in all of history combined, so shouldn’t we be thinking about tomorrow in a non-linear way? It’s time we started thinking in terms of machine generations, not human generations.

While IBM’s Watson computer beating humans on the TV quiz show Jeopardy can be dismissed as a stunt with little impact on our lives, the AI revolution is much closer than we think. There are examples of AI in today’s workplace, and investor’s portfolios that force us to look again at how soon human marketers will be affected by machines. Analysts at Gartner predict by 2017, managed services offerings that make use of autonomics and cognitive platforms like IP Soft's Amelia, will drive a 60 per cent reduction in the cost of services; an attractive prospect for every client & board.

2. “Technology might make certain jobs obsolete, but it’ll also create more and better opportunities.”

A point of view we could believe in when machines were there to replace dull, dirty and dangerous work. By raising standards and access to education, we created a new generation of knowledge workers. But this time will it be different? The internet of things, and heightened decision making ability of AI, is taking the human factor out of many business transactions and decisions.

I can’t say which impossible-to-conceive industries will emerge in this century, or how many jobs they’ll create. But I do know there are times when we want a human in charge, and occasions when that’s the last thing we want. I recently heard a young lady in a retail customer experience focus group, say that you know things have gone wrong when you have to speak to a person! Her seamless purchase was judged on no human involvement beyond her. On the other hand, when we’re in the air, we know auto-pilot is flying the plane, but we still need a human pilot in place to reassure us.

A factory of machines or an automated office, still calls on human oversight, but those jobs are fewer in number. The bespoke worlds of haute cuisine, couture and luxury goods will always resist automation and standardisation. Will human value, and jobs yet to be invented be associated with artisan produced goods and services, only available to a few, while the majority access individually personalized products and services, made cost effective by artificial intelligence?

3. “Not a problem for people at my level.”

Jaron Lanier in Who Owns the Future? notes the hollowing out of middle-class jobs as a consequence of automation. He uses an example, which forces every business leader to reconsider their assumptions: Kodak employed 140,000 workers during its heyday (market cap $28 billion), while Instagram employed just 13 people when it was purchased for $1 billion, in April 2012.

We need to make change as a consequence of AI, work for those at the top, as the alternative is a discontented middle class, stripped of aspiration and opportunity. Johann Rupert, billionaire owner of Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels has predicted that the structural unemployment technology will lead to, will result in envy, hatred and social warfare. “We're in for a huge change in society,' he says. 'Get used to it. And be prepared.' The French, Bolshevik and Chinese Revolutions were all led by discontented middle-class individuals, even if their ultimate course was later affected by workers and the poor.

Nearly half of all jobs could be automated within a decade according to Osborne and Frey’s Oxford Martin School report. Should the question be which half – or where can technology enable us to add more human value tackling a challenging and subjective problem, by removing the need for frustrating and repetitive drudgery in our work?

The biases outlined here are not presented as declaration of an inevitable future of mass marketing unemployment, but as an exploration of resistance to prepare for change. The extreme view of a calamitous future, where humans are never needed is riddled with technological, metaphysical and philosophical speculation, and in reality only one of many pressing global challenges ahead.

Realistically, marketing leaders and organisations need to find ways to capitalise from both artificial and human intelligence. It’s not a ‘human vs machine’ argument. Instead, shouldn’t we be focusing on how these machines, this intelligence we’ve created, can continue to support us to be better at what we can do better than any machine… being human? It would be foolish to argue that some jobs now being performed by humans, aren’t going to be lost to technology, but human and machine collaboration will produce some exciting results.

The idea that the more intelligent machines become, the more human we’ll be able to be, is a truly compelling one. We all rightly pride ourselves on our marketing work that is a result of creativity, contextual insight, empathy and judgment. I ask you to consider the quality of work, conceived through human ingenuity, we can achieve when the dull, repetitive, grunt work is removed from us, and taken on by machines.

Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies, 2014

Jaron Lanier, Who Owns the Future?, 2013

Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne, ‘The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerisation?’, 2013

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