“If You Can Describe Your Job, it Can Be Automated”
Why it’s important for organizations to remain human in the face of exponential change: a conversation with futurist Gerd Leonhard
To get a glimpse at what the future of work looks like, I spoke to Gerd Leonhard whose latest book “Technology vs Humanity” raises important questions about the ethics of exponential technologies. Gerd is a futurist, author, think-tank leader, keynote speaker, and strategist from Germany who focuses on the future of humanity and technology. He’s listed by Wired Magazine as one of the top 100 most influential people in Europe (2015).
If you’re a believer in exponential change, you probably realize that humanity will change more in the next 20 years than in the previous 300 years.
So given this dramatic change, I asked Gerd: are you an optimist or a pessimist about our uncertain future?
Welcome to #Hellven
“We are facing what I like to call #hellven challenges,” he explained. Hellven is a portmanteau of heaven and hell; the neologism implies that the future of work (and indeed humanity) could either be utopian (where we no longer have to work for a living and therefore spend our time only on things that are meaningful) or dystopian (where machines run the show in a “society that would be de-skilled, de-sensitized, dis-embodied, and altogether de-humanized.”)
But technology is neither good nor bad—it’s neutral until it’s applied. So, in other words, we get to make the choice.
The Andorithms of the Future
In his latest book Gerd talks about the need for a Future Digital Ethics Manifesto (see also Gerd’s open letter to Microsoft and Google’s Partnership on AI). The fifth point he suggests in this manifesto is “The right to employ or involve people instead of machines.”
Gerd is concerned that many organizations will think that automation will mean they can reduce a workforce of a hundred thousand to ten thousand, but it’s not that simple.
“Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.” — Albert Einstein
For example, Gerd says we could easily have digital therapists in the future, but would we really want to?
One realization of this hypothetical is the latest season of the British science fiction drama “Humans”, in which we see a woman with dementia in a nursing home who is being cared for by artificial humans called “synths”. These synths are walking, talking medical dictionaries and are programmed to care for the elderly and infirm. But what this woman needs isn’t artificial care, it’s something robots can’t give — human qualities like compassion, comfort, reassurance. Gerd calls these andorithms, and they’re precisely the things patients (and customers) want.
Andorithms also happen to be precisely the things organizations need to demonstrate in order to be competitive in a VUCA world.
And, Andorithms are why IKEA famously recruits “why sayers”—because businesses need people who can question, who can imagine, who can create, who can adapt, who can intuit.
And what of HR?
Gerd says most of HR will be automated (no surprises there), and what’s left “won’t be about controlling anymore, but about empowering.”
Why? Because the businesses that will thrive in the future are those that can attract and retain human talents who can remain innovative, navigate uncertainties, and respond to change. Companies need to empower these individuals, and old command-and-control management styles and organizational structures will snuff them out. [editor’s note: for a complementary perspective on the future of human resources, see our interview with People Ops maestro Sarah Braver.]
Gerd believes that every single business leader, technology pioneer, and public official needs to be a better steward for humanity and take responsibility for shaping the future. “In the past, it was very easy to be a business leader,” he explained. “Today, however, business leaders have to have a much wider scope of understanding to be effective.” If the industrial era was about muscle and the knowledge economy was about brains, we are now entering a new era that needs to be about understanding. About heart, even.
“To safeguard humanity’s future, we must invest as much energy in furthering humanity as we do in developing technology.”
Just as we have exponential technology, we need exponential humanism. Gerd believes we should never seek efficiency over humanity. He concluded by saying, “90% of the technologies being developed today are positive but we need to put walls around the things we don’t want to become technology, that must remain human. And we need to make sure that 10% that’s troublesome doesn’t grow to 50% by developing public guidelines, debating issues, and raising awareness.”
Finally, I asked him what advice he’d give to a professional who might be worrying about being replaced by a machine. “If you can describe your job, it can be automated,” he quipped. “Things that are complex and require context and understanding can’t be automated. Learn about technology and what’s happening, look ahead five years into the future. Any monkey work you do, give it to a machine and rise above it.”