I have nothing against robots. After all, there are times when all I want is a speedy response to a minor problem and an online “chat” with a bot will do the trick. And I'm only too grateful that my Roomba vacuums the floor, freeing me to do the things I love (which doesn't include cleaning house).
But when it comes to the future, we need to remember it isn't here yet. And it's plural. That is, there are probable futures, possible futures, and preferable futures. And no one--not even the Silicon Valley technocrats who would have us believe otherwise--can predict precisely what the future of work will look like.
If you've worried over headlines that claim we're all going to be jettisoned from our jobs by "smart machines," here are four points to ponder:
1. What happens in Japan…
As cross-cultural consultant Sharon Schweitzer and I explain in Access to Asia: Your Multicultural Guide to Building Trust, Inspiring Respect, and Creating Long-lasting Business Relationships, the way we think, feel and behave is not universal. There are huge cultural differences, often hidden in plain sight. For example, we might look at the way the Japanese embrace humanoid robots—for house sitting to babysitting, from nursing the elderly to providing them with companionship—and assume that such artificial intelligence (AI) will be as enthusiastically welcomed in the West.
Yet there are many reasons why Japan’s fondness for robots is unlikely to be duplicated everywhere. For one thing, Japan tops the list of countries with the largest aging populations. While there's been talk recently about Japanese politicians relaxing the country's previously tough immigration laws, Japan still "lags G-7 peers" in opening its borders to overseas workers. Which is why it needs robots to supplement its shrinking workforce, more than most.
For another, Shinto or “the way of kami,” imbues every aspect of Japanese life, including the belief that each rock, tree, car—or robot—has a life force. As one University of Michigan anthropologist explains, “In contemporary Euro-American culture… what is living has spirit or soul; what is not living does not. Such distinctions are not so clearly made in the Japanese way of thinking.”
Do you see "robot-wedding ceremonies" catching on in the West? I'm not so sure.
2. To persuade is human
In April 2016, Science magazine reported a “ground-breaking” study by two Californian researchers that showed lasting opinion change is possible—even for highly polarizing topics. Specially trained door-to-door canvassers in Miami engaged with participants who held negative attitudes about transgender people and within ten minutes had successfully reduced that prejudice. The result persisted for at least three months.
These conversations were designed to be different from the spewing of facts and figures used by political canvassers, or favored by businesspeople when trying to convert targets to a different point of view. Instead, participants in this study were encouraged to do most of the talking and were guided to think about how they may have been treated in the past, similar to how they now judged others.
While offering important insights for activists, there’s a broader lesson here. Described as “one small, scientifically verifiable way humans can learn to better understand one another,” this success was dependent on finding common ground or our “common humanity” between canvasser and participant.
When it comes to trying to change people’s attitudes, do you think robots—having no humanity (at least according to Western sensibilities)—could do this? Which means that those of us whose jobs include communication skills involving a high degree of persuasion are unlikely to be replaced by a machine anytime soon.
3. Lighten up!
According to one social psychologist, 60 percent of human conversation could be defined as gossip. Anthropologist Robin Dunbar goes so far as to suggest we may have developed language in order to gossip, not the other way around.
Need proof of the relevance of that, even in a business context? Next time you're on LinkedIn, check which updates are attracting huge numbers of likes and comments. Is it the worthy articles about blockchain or career advice or emotional intelligence? Or the picture of a stray dog “crying”—prompting debate as to whether or not dogs cry? The boss asking whether he should fire a successful salesperson who wants to work part-time elsewhere? Or those asking advice about which logo or headshot to choose for their new business?
Human beings have a strong desire to share those things that make us human. Including idle chatter. And why an obsession with efficiency and consistency, and by extension automation, could reduce the opportunities for more meaningful conversations that employees and customers are looking for.
4. Designed for complexity
In his novel, Time Enough for Love, science-fiction writer, Robert A. Heinlein writes:
“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, co-operate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”
Specialization is also for machines—one task, executed flawlessly. (Note: Even AI’s “champion,” AlphaGo can only play one game!)
Writing about the ongoing hype around AI, one author pointed out that for a machine to do all the tasks that most humans do in the course of their work, "you would need a “frankensoft” with some cognitive computing skills, some robotic skills, some camera/scanning skills and drone like visualization among other attributes. Could someone put such a machine together? Sure, but at what cost?"
But the main reason why I believe we should be somewhat skeptical of the distorted visions of the future of work promoted by techno-utopians, who may have a vested interest in doing so, comes down to basic psychology. We humans need interactions matched in complexity, empathy, and understanding.
Which is why, if you offer some or all of these aspects in the work you do, your ongoing value will likely increase, not be eliminated. Especially as more smart, future-focused businesses think deeply about their most personally impactful (as opposed to merely transactional) customer- and client-facing roles. And hesitate to replace human beings with machines.