Everywhere you turn these days, there’s talk of automation replacing people. Technology is surely advancing at a rapid rate, and in today’s click-driven media environment, sensationalism sells, but just because tech can replace a human worker doesn’t mean we’re always going to want that. In some instances, even when tech can do an adequate job, we still want to deal with a person.
While a machine can perform a given task, often more efficiently than we can, what it lacks is the artistry in the activity, that uniquely human ability to cater to the needs of the individual. The protocol may suggest one approach, but a person who is good at their job understands when to adjust and the subtleties that are required.
The Obama administration’s recent report on the possible economic impact of artificial intelligence and automation looked at the issue at least partly through a policy prism. “Whether AI leads to unemployment and increases in inequality over the long run depends not only on the technology itself but also on the institutions and policies that are in place” the report stated. It went on to peg the percentage of jobs affected by automation over the next 10-20 years somewhere between 9 and 47 percent, a broad range that suggests the true impact won’t be known for some time.
Many people involved in the startup ecosystem believe that we will always push tech to its fullest extent simply because we can, but not everyone agrees that’s a desirable approach. The New York Times reported on a McKinsey study last week, that found that, while automation is growing, it may not be at the pace we have been led to believe. “How automation affects employment will not be decided simply by what is technically feasible, which is what technologists tend to focus on,” McKinsey’s James Manyika told the Times.
Ultimately, there will be many factors involved in the impact of automation, including our desire to interact with our fellow humans. Consider the automatic teller machine as a primary example. Developed in the 1960s and popularized in the 70s and 80s, it likely replaced some human tellers, but it’s 2017 and most banks still have tellers. Yes, you can get money whenever and wherever you want, even when the bank isn’t open. Heck, you can bank on your phone, but when you walk into the bank, there are still people working there because, when it comes to our money, sometimes we still want to talk to a trained professional.
Certainly when it comes to medicine, we are going to want to continue dealing with highly educated people, even when there are machines helping our doctors come up with the proper diagnosis and treatment. Even if a machine could determine an appropriate plan — and as we know there are few absolutes in medicine — we still want to work with a doctor, who has been trained to talk us through the options and administer the treatment protocol — and who understands that art in the science.
People still matter. And that’s an important point to keep in mind. Even in scenarios that don’t involve advanced education like physicians, it doesn’t mean that we as humans don’t want to interact with people instead of machines.
For instance, technology exists to replace waitstaff with an iPad menu. One San Francisco restaurant has taken people out of the equation completely. After placing your order on the iPad, your food comes out of a little cubbie — no runners or any human contact required — but not everyone is going to want this kind of experience. Some people like to be welcomed by a person, who not only takes the order, but answers questions about the menu and brings you your food.
The same goes for Uber or Lyft. Clearly, driverless cars are a growing reality, and car services want to go that route because it’s cheaper for them, but it doesn’t mean all consumers will enjoy a driverless ride. Some like the experience of talking to drivers. It’s more than simply getting from Point A to Point B (or enriching the car services).
This is not about being a luddite. Technology marches relentlessly forward, and it would be foolish to argue otherwise, but some things remain fundamental, and people-to-people communication will continue to be one of them. Just because the tech is available, doesn’t mean it’s always going to be the best option in every situation.