Dirk Knemeyer

The Digital Life #140: Automating Work

Episode Summary

What does the future of work look like? As software, robots, and the IoT automate activities previously completed by humans, change is coming all too quickly. In fact, according to preliminary findings of a recent McKinsey report, 45 percent of all work activities could be automated today using technology already demonstrated. From fulfilling warehouse orders to suggesting medical treatments for ailments, this coming wave of automation will redefine jobs and business processes for factory workers and CEOs alike. In this episode of The Digital Life, we discuss the inevitability of automation and what that means for future occupations.

Resources

McKinsey Study: Four Fundamentals of Workplace Automation

Jon:
Welcome to episode 140 of The Digital Life. A show about our adventures in the world of design and technology. I’m your host Jon Follett and with me is founder and co-host, Dirk Knemeyer.

Dirk:
Hey dee ho, Jon.

Jon:
Hey dee ho, Dirk. Another week, another topic. This one is something that I’m very interested in, which is the future of work. In particular, the automation of work.

Dirk:
Dun dun dun.

Jon:
Yeah. That’s what’s coming for all of us. You can imagine robots, and artificial intelligence, and a series of computers, and software sort of taking over any number of jobs. There was a very interesting McKinsey Report at least, it was released in November, The Interim Finding for released on the four fundamentals of workplace automation, and they had some very interesting things to say, which were unexpected to me.

Essentially, there’s technologies that can automate roughly fifty percent of work right now. Work activities using RT demonstrated technology. This could range from things like picking objects in a warehouse, Amazon’s got the Kiva Robotics, which is a Boston area firm. Basically automated the heck out of warehouse picking. Instead of someone going and looking for an item in a warehouse, you’ve got robot system that basically brings it to the pecker, four times as fast. We’ve all seen the numerous ads for IBM Watson. They’ve got all sorts of celebrities, from Serena Williams to who knows, appearing with Watson, and Watson’s a little self deprecating so it’s not to scare the heck out of you. IBM’s really pushing how much Watson can be helpful.

All this automation is coming. In fact, in a lot of ways, it’s already here. If you’ve find that fifty percent of your work activities can be automated, there is that other half of the work activities, which necessarily still require a human being. What the McKinsey report more or less boiled that down too was that everybody’s job is going to change because we’re going to have to take in automation into whatever occupations that we currently have. This doesn’t just apply to what you’d think on the frontline workers. It just applies to folks like that. It applies to knowledge, workers. It applies to CEOs. There’s chunks of automation that can be found in the activities of each of those groups.

I think the future of work if you believe McKinsey, and I enjoy their analysis, and I’m looking forward to this final report. I have a feeling that we’re all going to be dealing with a bit of automation in our future. Dirk, what was your impression of the McKinsey report?
Dirk:
You’re right. There’s going to be automation all around us in the future, but I thought the McKinsey report sucked.

Jon:
Oh, no.

Dirk:
I thought it was terrible. Let me start with they did some interesting things. They broke down automation on the basis of activities, as you pointed out, and that’s important because they said, “What are the things that automation can take care of, and they rolled up all their tools form that,” which is really nice. What they didn’t do is bring that down to the impact it will actually have with workers and people in the workplace.

What I mean by that is, they said, “Yeah, for these type of people, thirty percent of their tasks will be able to be automated.” OK, that’s great, but if you’re one of those type of people, and thirty percent of your tasks are automated, what does that mean? Does that mean there will be thirty percent less jobs? Does that mean that you will shift to be doing other things, but still have a job? It wasn’t taking that next level of analysis.

I thought that was really poor because it gave statistics with very little context, and didn’t give us the information we really want, which is which jobs will be lost? Which jobs will be at risk, and or for my job, how will my job change as a consequence of N percent of my activities being automated and taken from being something that I can do?

I thought that was very weak. I thought it represented a poor analysis. It didn’t have the sort of rigor, and really deep thinking that I would hope for. I wasn’t keen on it at all, Jon.
Jon:
I disagree with that a little bit just because I do think that it’s their sort of preliminary thesis. I imagine that there may, or to your point, may not be that sort of information in the final report.

Dirk:
There better be. There better be.

Jon:
I did take away this, that if some portion of your job is automated, it does free you up to do higher value activities, which in this report were classified as those creative activities of which there is not a lot of creative activity right now in the American economy, according to this report.

Dirk:
Compared to what though? Compared to what?

Jon:
Compared to all of the rote things that we have to do everyday. Right?

Dirk:
OK.

Jon:
There is some percentage that they’re classifying as creative activities only. You and I have a design related jobs. I know we have a ton of rote kind of activities that we have to do from if you’re looking over a contract, or if you’re scheduling an appointment, or any of these things.

Dirk:
You’re going to trust the automaton to review your contracts, Jon?

Jon:
I sure hope so. That would be a big help if Watson could come in, and look at a design contracts for me.

Dirk:
Yes, it would.

Jon:
The hopeful note, which is I’m beginning to see how you and I parse things differently. The hopeful note that I took away was that there would be more room for creative high value activities, and that would increase the meaningfulness of our job.

Dirk:
Oh, Jon. You are assuming that CEO focused on profits, focused on the bottom line, focused on Wall Street will translate the new found freedom and availability of the staff into redirecting them to creative pursuits, as opposed to chopping their freaking heads off, and getting cost down in order to make the bottom line look better, and make the street happy with them. I think that they’re going to take the latter. I think that they’re going to go for efficiency. Maybe in twenty years, cultures will change so that there will be this creative renaissance, but in the three to five years stipulated in the McKinsey report, that ain’t going to happen.

We’re still backward, short term, greedy, idiotic thinkers. That’s not going to change that fast.
Jon:
You are on fire today, sir.

Dirk:
I’m calling it like I see it, Jon.

Jon:
I do think that we’ve gone through a number of industrial and information revolutions. There’ve always been new jobs that resulted, or jobs that have changed as a result of new technologies.

Dirk:
That’s true.

Jon:
I’m anticipating that there will be a whole set of new activities, whether they’re more on the creative side, or whether they’re more route work, I don’t know.

Dirk:
I think it’s more likely to be service work. A lot of this depends on the socioeconomic factors, and whether the wealthy use all of this that’s happening as a lever to allow people to opt out of the full forty hour work week or not. However, I think the most likely outcome is one where services are much more prevalent, where things like massages, things like life coaches, therapists. These things become more prevalent because we start to move in to roles of human-to-human enhancement, so to speak. Health care, health and wellness, in some ways are going to really accelerate, even as a lot of the tasks, let’s say the traditional doctor had are becoming automated and taken over.

Actually, I think it’s a really different vector where we’re going to go in the longer time horizon.
Jon:
I like that analysis. I think there’s an opportunity then for people putting together companies for the leadership, whether it’s a technology firm or not to identify the possibilities for meaningful work. What you’re saying is, given the market forces that currently exist, you’re skeptical that CEOs will focus on meaningful work, as sort of the core value.

Dirk:
Market forces, and the state of the human animal.

Jon:
My counter would be that if you have folks who are starting companies explicitly for the creation of meaningful work that you will have that counter weight there. I don’t know who those entrepreneurs will be, but my guess is that millennials especially are interested in meaningful work.

Dirk:
I’m just as interested in meaningful work as any millennial.

Jon:
Sure. I’m just pointing out that it’s possible that folks could also be interested in creating meaningful jobs for other people. It’s also going to be a huge political problem, right? You can’t have a lot of folks doing work that is entirely meaningless, or unfulfilling because then you’re going to have a highly unsatisfied population earning not that much money.

From a political standpoint, there’s also that element there. I don’t know whether that results in new kinds of workers unions, new types of regulation, new elements that I’m not even thinking of, but I do think that there will be push back. Of course, the ever present fear of technology and automation, which should unfortunately start coming to the floor sooner, rather than later.
Dirk:
Yeah, that’s right.

Jon:
I think from the perspective that this report is incomplete, I was fascinated with the McKinsey findings, mainly, once again that this is happening so much faster than I anticipated any of it would. If you told me four years ago that we’d be discussing the automation of work, and let’s apply it to the design field, I mean, you see software now that proclaims that it can automate the design of websites based on the most important, most viable content.

Just fifteen years ago, creating a website was like you are stamping money, right? To see that as a shift to an automated job where that no longer has a high value, that’s a wake up call for me in a way. Just to see something that I felt was so secure, which is knowledge, work, and design, and to see the possibility, even the looming possibility of automation. Dirk, how do you look at this looming automation, and what do you think your reaction is going to be to it?
Dirk:
A lot of it depends of the direction that it goes. How the people empower manifested, and how that impacting the society? At a more abstract level, it’s just creating efficiencies, right? If we go back fifteen year,s when you could get a lot of money for making websites, it was inefficiency that allowed that to happen. What I mean is, there wasn’t a common shared understanding of in a company’s website, what it’s trying to achieve? The best way to structure it to achieve it. How the technology, from the standpoint of the front-end engineering should manifest?

Going back to Zeldman’s stuff, it was all spaghetti back then, but there were sort of objectively correct answers to those things, but they weren’t dogma. They weren’t broadly understood, and so people were fumbling their way through. Once those things became clear and in the minds of more and more people, I mean, it was only natural that as the web sort of standardized, and reached the point of maturity, and more broad understanding that that can then be taken in to if then statements to eins zwei eins zwei it out.
Jon:
Sure.

Dirk:
I think that’s a good example as we look forward. What are the things that are pretty well understood? What are the things that aren’t requiring wicked innovation, super creative stuff? It’s those things that are most right for automation, similar with to what has happen to website design.

Jon:
Right. I guess the tip would be, look for areas that require creativity and exploration, and try to stay away from areas that have well understood frameworks, and are more likely to be automated.

Dirk:
Definitely look at things that are crossing boundaries. Even fields of engineering, a single narrow field of engineering, it’s pretty well known, there’s a body of knowledge there. The possibility that that can become something that’s automated, and computers can be replacing engineers is increasingly likely. As the technology is improving, what is going to be much harder, and take much longer time to do is crossing streams.

Your electrical engineering with your biology, for example. It’s going to be a hell of a long time before machines are able to do the kind of creative thinking work that people do in things that go across those two, but the more narrow will happen pretty quickly, much more quickly than people want to think.
Jon:
Yeah. I can only imagine, if you’re not tuned in to do these things, how scary it’s going to be because it frightens me, and I’m sort of expecting it.

Dirk:
You know what, Jon. None of this frightens me. I’ll tell you why. Probably, everyone who’s listening to this show, I’m well-educated, I’m fairly intelligent, and so if the world would ever get in to the point that I am fucked, then everybody’s fucked. I think. I’m fine. I don’t think we’re going to get to the point where everybody’s fucked, and so I’m going to be OK.

It doesn’t scare me whatsoever. I’m just watching it come, and I’ll continue to work hard, and be curious, and participate. I think things are going to work out just fine.
Jon:
Yeah. That’s a positive note to end on today. Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to the show, you can follow along with the things that we’re mentioning here in real time. Just head over to thedigitalife.com. That’s just one L on the digital life, and go to the page for this episode. It include links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody. It’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening, or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked.

If you want to follow us outside of the show, you can me on Twitter @jonfollett, that’s J-O-N-F-O-L-L-E-T-T. Of course the whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios, which you can check out at goinvo.com, G-O-I-N-V-O.com. Dirk?
Dirk:
You can follow me on Twitter @dknemeyer, that’s at D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R, or email me dirk@goinvo.com.

Jon:
That’s it for episode 140 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett. We’ll see you next time.

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