Thursday, October 05, 2017

The Automation Dilemma

Over the next decade a steady stream of new companies and products will use AI and automation to change the way work gets done across the economy. One of the books that I found time to read this summer was The Economic Singularity by Calum Chace. Calum provides a terrific summary of the debate about the impact that AI will have on individuals and society as the pace of change increases.
I am definitely on one side of this debate -- I believe that we are going to have a very bumpy time ahead of us as one set of human activity is ceded to the machines. Even if we are simultaneously creating new jobs as the old jobs are eliminated, I believe we will have a "lost generation" of workers who will find it difficult to develop the skills required for those new jobs.
So on the one hand automation will improve our lives -- cost reduction, quality improvement, etc -- but on the other hand automation has the potential to disrupt our lives by making it impossible for some members of our society to produce goods or provide services in a way the economy values. The Automation Dilemma.
I believe that those of us involved in the creation or deployment of these new AI and automation tools have a moral responsibility to go beyond the simple objective of "cost reduction" and do things with these technologies that make people's lives better. While reducing costs is not going away as an objective, we should be simultaneously asking how these technologies help us create growth -- both for our companies and for our employees.
Corporate automation initiatives today are typically very top down -- process re-engineering teams and software development teams work together to automate work, largely keeping the process the same but focused on removing people from any tasks that are repetitive, proscribed, and time consuming.
But what if we could approach automation bottoms up? Give automation tools to the employees themselves and ask them to automate the tasks which they know are repetitive, but also identify opportunities to change the way the work gets done by substituting the eliminated time for activities that can create more value for the business. Could companies become better faster if we trusted employees to own the task of improving?
We must find ways to use AI and automation to enhance human potential, increase the time we spend doing things that are uniquely human and find those places where a person plus a machine is greater than either one alone. We humans are curious, creative, problem solvers, relationship builders, empathetic and compassionate. These are qualities we want in ourselves and our society -- let's get our machines to help us be better at using these positive qualities to improve all of our lives.