Beck Gusler under a Creative Commons license

When Humans Work Like Machines

If we send a human to do a machine’s job it is very likely that the human will do it worse. Beyond the physical and cognitive limitations common to all the members of our species, there will be a risk of “human errors”, and we will observe a higher variability in productivity and output quality. @edans recently wrote about this in a post where he commented on Uber’s decision of monitoring the “style at the wheel” of its drivers by using data from the accelerometer, gyroscope and GPS of their smartphones. This method will save the company long discussions with its users on whether the style of drivers is more or less abrupt, and it could be used in the future to define a standard on how Uber’s drivers must drive their vehicles. Moreover, it can help Uber define the algorithms that will govern the fleet of autonomous taxis in which they are already working…

Notwithstanding, there is a bigger problem we cannot ignore: working like a machine has negative consequences for humans.

To begin with, a person will hardly find in a machine’s job many opportunities to put into practice and develop the kind of skills that, according to a recent report from the World Economic Forum, will be most demanded in the job market in 2020:

  1. Complex problem solving
  2. Critical thinking
  3. Creativity
  4. People Management
  5. Coordinating with others
  6. Emotional intelligence
  7. Judgment and decision making
  8. Service orientation
  9. Negotiation
  10. Cognitive flexibility

[Let’s highlight that “Quality Control”, which occupied the sixth place among the most demanded skills in 2015, is not anymore in the list]

Consequently, doing a machine’s job may cause a standstill in the person’s professional development and a loss of employability, which is something extremely risky in a highly volatile labor market.

Besides, let’s think about how that person will feel, knowing she is at a permanent risk of being replaced by a technological solution, and not being able to bring into play any of those qualities that differentiate us from a machine… To what extent that job will contribute to her personal growth and self-fulfillment?

However, despite all these drawbacks, there are still many people whose work could be perfectly done by a machine.

Why does this happen?

Leaving aside that there are some companies that ignore that the number of non-automatable jobs has dropped significantly in the last decade, there are other reasons for humans still doing “machine’s jobs”.

On some occasions it can be less costly if a job is performed by a person rather than by a machine, even if technology to automate that activity is already available in the market. For instance, it is significant that several fast-food companies began to install order-taking machines in their restaurants in the United States last year (much later than in other countries) after rumors of a possible increase in minimum wages started to circulate.

On other occasions it can respond to social reasons. Especially when unemployment rates are high, or when it comes to individuals who are not easy to reskill to adapt their profiles to what the labor market demands (or will demand). In such cases, doing one of those “machine’s jobs” can be preferable to stay at home living off subsidies.

But, whatever the circumstances let’s admit it: doing a machine’s job is not the best for a person’s development and growth.

Yet there is something worse: humans who do “human” jobs as if they were machines.

This is, for example, what happens to many managers that in the hyper-quantified world we live manage their organizations exclusively through cold dashboards. Simon Sinek masterfully explained this in a popular TED talk: Today many business leaders lose sight that their organizations are composed of humans, social animals who have sought grouping together in communities for millennia, and manage their companies from a screen, as if they were watching television and switching channels with a remote control. The downside is that the more we manage through screens the less we feel the impact of our decisions on people, and the more inhuman our actions become, because, as Sinek concludes, technology is great to exchange information or conduct transactions, but terrible to build relationships…

And it’s a shame, because we should take advantage of technological progress to move just in the opposite direction. As MIT professor David Author argues in his article “Why Are There So Many Jobs Still? The History and Future of Workplace Automation, automation should free us of routine and less rewarding tasks and allow us, in turn, to apply to our work our ability to solve problems, our creativity, our interpersonal skills, and other genuinely human qualities, converting the combination of automation and humanity in the “secret formula” that differentiates our companies from their competitors.

A “re-humanization” of work that our society desperately needs, and cries for.

Link to Spanish version.