Spare a thought for William Lee, who invented a knitting machine for stockings in 1589 that was turned down by Queen Elizabeth I. The British queen refused a patent in deference to her “poor subjects” who would be put out of work and “brought to ruin”.
Needless to say, progress was not halted. Lee simply crossed the Channel and had better luck with Henry IV. Years later, his and other inventions, such as the spinning jenny, mechanized looms and sewing machines, revolutionized the textiles industry.
Today we are facing another round of automation: not physical but mental. The genie of intelligent automation is out of the bottle: it powers ride-sharing apps and driverless cars, and recommends what books and movies we might enjoy. With this disruptive technology comes new challenges. Businesses need to decide: what do we keep human, and what do we digitize?
Automation has moved from the physical to the mental. Neural networks and machine learning mean that computers are discovering knowledge for themselves. In essence, we feed them bucket loads of data and they teach themselves (and us) what it means.
Does this mean automation will replace people? I don't think so. It's unlikely that whole occupations will be lost. Instead, tasks within jobs will be automated and most jobs will be redefined.
The workforce is changing:
For example, at EY, we worked in partnership with RPA vendor Blue Prism to develop software bots to work alongside our people in human resources (HR), travel and accounting. We expect these 700 software bots to save us 2.1 million hours this fiscal year, just one example of how humans and machines are working together.
While understanding what technology can do is a must, so too is understanding human intelligence. Our intelligence combines both cognitive and sensory abilities, something that AI – despite its speed and computational power – still struggles with.
There are attributes that are uniquely human, and roles that depend on these qualities will continue to need people to carry them out. One of these attributes is ingenuity, the ability to use things in new ways. When is the last time a robot surprised you? That's not what they're designed to do. But people surprise us all the time. We invent things, put seemingly incompatible ideas together and create something entirely new.
Empathy is another. Think about the difference a good doctor can make to your health. Or how your favorite teacher made you feel. Or the last time someone in customer service made you smile. People do that. Machines can't.
Then there's judgment. Computers can do what is logical, but sometimes that doesn't deliver the right answer. Should a bereaved person be held to strict payment terms on a loan? Should autistic children who don't like being touched be punished for striking out when they are touched? Humans are able to take into account extenuating circumstances.
Together these skills enable us to be good at creative problem solving and thinking “outside the box”, to be good at teamwork and inspiring people. The value of these skills can only increase as AI matures.
What can companies do?
More than ever, people want to find human connections and a sense of purpose at work. We need to coach our people so they know what to expect, equip them with the skills they need, and use technology to support our vision of the future that we want.
At EY, we have a system called EY Badges, which give our people digital credentials in skills that differentiate them, such as data visualization, AI, data transformation and information strategy. We also invest heavily in developing our people's communication and teaming skills.
Managing the impact of technology on our people's daily lives is also important. If you're dealing with work emails and texts out of hours and on weekends, when do you disconnect? It's becoming clear that our “always on” culture is taking a toll on our health and well-being. In 2017, France banned after-hours emails from employers. New York City is considering similar legislation. While I personally doubt that legislation is the answer, we do need to acknowledge the importance of “turning off” and pursuing other interests in our free time.
AI and robotics are here to stay, but so is this truth: organizations are ultimately a collective of people, working and making decisions together.
Leaders, innovators, all of us need to think about how we can use the best of technology to bring out the best in people. And businesses need to invest in people's uniquely human attributes, to ensure them a meaningful future.