What the coming of the robots means for the knowledge worker

We all know the robots are coming. Cars will drive themselves, floors will clean themselves, food will serve itself and clothes will sew themselves. Very soon we won’t need to interact with another human being while placing a food order or shopping for groceries or buying clothes. The robots will take over and wipe out millions of jobs. But most of these jobs are repetitive, follow-the-instruction kinds of jobs. These jobs do not require critical thinking or decision making. They can be done more efficiently, more cheaply and more quickly by a machine than a human. So it is no wonder that these will be the first to go.

But what about the knowledge jobs?

The jobs of the elite. The ones that require graduate degrees and years of experience and complex problem solving? What will the jobs of doctors, engineers, business strategists, financial advisors and management executives look like in the age of machines?

This HBR article written by my classmate Megan Beck claims the knowledge jobs will be disrupted too and all of us in the knowledge economy will have to retool ourselves in order to compete with the robots.

All knowledge jobs can essentially be broken down into 5 basic steps:

  1. Gather data
  2. Analyse data
  3. Interpret data
  4. Develop insights and recommendations
  5. Collaborate with end user/client to tailor and implement custom solutions for them

The machines can perform the first four tasks exponentially better than any human can. Humans are limited by their learning and memorization capacity. We can only review and analyze so much data. It is impossible for a doctor to keep abreast of all the publications and research in their field. A management consultant can only review a handful of similar business cases. After a certain point, knowledge workers have to rely on their experience, biases, intuition and rules of thumb.

A robot does not have this problem.

Using machine learning we can gather, analyze and interpret data with such speed and efficiency that no human may match it. As machine learning and deep learning advances, coming up with recommendations and insights will also become an area where we rely on our machines to give us the right (and better) answers. Here’s where things get interesting. However smart a robot is, it is still a robot. It cannot connect, interact or empathize with another human being like…well….a human being can.

We still need our emotional intelligence, our soft skills, our ability to engage and influence one another to implement solutions that add value. This is the new territory of excellence for the knowledge worker. Our jobs will be completely transformed in the next decade and while this is exciting, it is also a bit scary. There is no doubt that a lot of us will lose our jobs. The key to remember is that fighting the machines will not help us. It hasn’t helped the factory worker who revolted against this new state of affairs by bringing to power a useless, unqualified imbecile. The machines are coming and the only way to compete with them is to enslave them and use them in our favor — just like we did with fire. We must refocus our development and growth opportunities to be more collaborative, empathetic, engaging and influential. We must learn how to connect with one another. We must re-learn how to truly listen to one another.

We must fight the machines by embracing our humanity.