Automation and the Human Touch

At dinner recently, a guest held us all entranced as he described his current work: a post-doc at a prestigious London university, he has been working for nearly two decades in artificial intelligence (AI), specializing in trying to teach computers how to teach other computers. While much of his work is simply too esoteric to explain here (that's my code for "it went right over my head"), what was very obvious to me was the extent to which things have advanced since we first met - as he was just setting out upon his journey in this field - and how rapidly theoretical advances are becoming practical innovations which then, in turn, move out into the mainstream. Problems he and his peers were wrangling with only a few years ago now seem like ancient history, he said, and while "the future is always infinitely far away, tomorrow seems closer than ever." 

If any of us at the table had had any doubts before that we're on the verge of tremendous social change as a result of automation and smart technology - and I don't believe anyone did have such doubts (as one would have to have had one's head thoroughly buried in the sand not to be aware of the whirlwind approaching us), they would have been thoroughly dispelled by the end of our companion's passionate and impressive address. But, of course, how to react to the automation revolution is immeasurably more difficult than simply to assert that it's coming...

I am on record repeatedly voicing fears that our societies are somewhat sleepwalking into huge challenges if we embrace such wholesale transformation of the means of production without taking radical steps also to transform the distribution of the gains therefrom, but that's only part of the problem and solution: we can't simply transfer overnight all responsibility for production to our electronic brethren and kick back in our hammocks. Human beings will still for the foreseeable future play vital roles in our socio-economic development: the question is, what? And, perhaps more profoundly still: how do we train for those as-yet-unspecified roles? And what must that training comprise, and when should it begin?

Much work has gone into various attempts to ascertain which jobs are most susceptible to being "automated away" and, contrarily, which are most "future-proof" It seems that most studies conclude (perhaps unsurprisingly) that the latter category will comprise roles which involve a very high degree of "the human touch" - facets such as "interpersonal communication, empathy, compassion" will be hugely valuable, says Richard Newton, author of The End of Nice: How To Be Human In A World Run by Robots. As a result, occupations such as teaching (especially at primary level), waiting and nursing will continue to provide humans with work (it's interesting to note that these are currently comparatively underpaid jobs in most countries: will we see a shift in that area in future?).

Of course, it isn't simply going to be about finding areas where we can be working instead of robots, but also alongside them: roles which act as an intermediary between hardware/software and humans will be extremely valuable. So, for example, within the medical profession, it may be that with the likes of IBM Watson Health and other platforms moving into the mainstream, the diagnostic abilities of human doctors become less highly prized - while, simultaneously, robotic surgeons eventually replace their human counterparts - and yet humans are unlikely ever to respond as well to a cyborg as they might to a human when seeking reassurance: a doctor of the future might concentrate on person-to-person communication and therapy, improving a patient's experience of the process while the "hard medicine" is delivered by artificial intelligence and robotics.

If this is indeed where things are headed, it's very much what we now refer to as "soft skills" which are going to be most highly valued - but those are notoriously difficult to train people in. Empathy, compassion and the like tend to be formed very early in life, and to quote one of my fellow dinner guests, "It's much easier to teach an arsehole accountancy than it is to teach him not to be an arsehole."  For many years our education systems have been designed to produce workers, people with skills that meet the requirements of industry and commerce. As long as those people had the minimum emotional intelligence required to survive in the workplace, that was sufficient - and the responsibility for developing that lay overwhelmingly with the family. 

However, we may be moving towards a paradigm in which emotional intelligence is as important, if not more so, than the more traditional type - after all, we cannot hope to be smarter than the smartest. AI, the futurists tell us, is only round the corner but we're pretty confident we'll always have the advantage emotionally - and if that's the case as well as reshaping our socioeconomic apparatus, shouldn't we also be looking to transform our approach to educating our children too? 

Jamie Liddell, Editor, Outsource

Jamie Liddell is the Editor-in-Chief of Outsource. He is a journalist with extensive B2B and consumer experience, particularly in the sourcing and international property sectors. A graduate of Cambridge University, Jamie worked as Chief Foreign Correspondent for property media company Blendon Communications before moving into full-time B2B journalism as launch editor of the Shared Services & Outsourcing Network. He took over the helm of the Outsource brand in April 2010 and has since overseen its transformation and evolution into the world's leading publication focusing on the sourcing, outsourcing and business transformation space.