Augment vs. Replace: Mostly Talk, But What’s Needed Is Action

The future of work isn’t on the horizon. It’s getting closer every day, and in many ways it’s already here. The rise in freelancers continues globally, the number and diversity of jobs reported to be at risk of automation increases weekly, and it now includes white-collar, blue-collar, pink-collar, green-collar and gray-collar professions. No color on the employment spectrum, it appears, is safe.

Yet amidst all the headlines lurks a meta-question: will new technologies ultimately augment or replace human labor?

The “digital economy,” “era of automation” and “Fourth Industrial Revolution” (take your pick of preferred term) put us at the cusp of two extremely interesting, contested potential futures of work:

  • One is a future of work in which work is largely automated, workers are replaced, and we have a social crisis because there’s no more work to be done. People have neither money nor meaning.
  • The other is a future in which we augment and enrich people’s work. Drudge work goes away, and we become collaborators with increasingly intelligent machines.

The decisions we make today will determine whether we follow path one or two.

Here’s why I am worried: although a lot of the talk today is about augment, most of the action is about replace. The news is filled with voices (many incredibly intelligent people, along with plenty of noise) about how we must figure this out. And yet basically no one — neither CEOs nor governments, think tanks, labor unions or civic organizations — is actually translating those words into actions. In the absence of focused effort and leadership, there’s no guarantee that we don’t slip off the cliff of crisis.

Artist: Sandra Yagi.

The magnitude of what’s at stake means three things:

  • First and foremost, we need to get really clear on what augment actually means. We’ve begun throwing around the phrase “augment vs. replace” as if it’s a disposable commodity, as if we merely utter the words it will somehow be solved (by someone else), as if we do nothing, augment will somehow win. It won’t.
  • Second, we need to create enterprises, teams & cultures that lean into automation that augments. Today’s employees are mostly waiting for the axe to drop: is their function vanishing next? Worst of cases they help train their robot replacements. They are hardly trusted players in the automation wave.
  • And last, I believe that we need a moral compass. Each of us needs to take greater individual responsibility for understanding the implications of what’s at stake: for ourselves, our families and our communities. We have begun to see some early inklings of this, such as The Copenhagen Letter on Technology published this week.

This mandate includes the perhaps uncomfortable but essential step of considering the implications on those who will be hardest hit: unskilled workers, who often are lower-income as well. We fail as human beings to simply say “it’s someone else’s problem.” At the end of the day, it is everyone’s shared problem. If we do not create inclusive solutions today, we almost guaranteed of social crisis tomorrow. Moreover, and more profoundly, we will have failed one another as humanity.

The time has never been more urgent to call out this collective shortcoming. We don’t want — and can’t afford — a future of work in which we’ve written ourselves out of the script.