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Automation Leads Businesses To Use People As A Premium

“Intelligent robots threaten millions of jobs,” screamed one headline last year. It’s what reporters call a “beat-up.” Meaning it’s kind of half-true and you can make it into a big story. But the big, scary headlines are just that, half-truths at best and grossly misleading at worst.

So what’s really happening?

Employment IS changing, that’s for sure; but the recent pace of change has dramatically increased over the past 70 years. There’s no question, for instance, that artificial intelligence and robotics are revolutionizing manufacturing. But that’s been happening for centuries. In 1961, General Motors first used a robot to increase production-line efficiency. “Unimate” was basically a steel arm attached to a drum and it poured molten metal into die casts, welded things and did some heavy lifting in its spare time. That’s what robots do well: drudge work. And robots are really just extensions of human’s constant need to improve productivity through automation: the cotton gin, the printing press, canals, the wheel. These are all automation innovations that allowed humanity to grow and prosper.

The fact that automation and robots can do repetitive, boring or dangerous jobs with near-perfect reliability is a huge bonus. Productivity increases, and the shift allows employees to move into work that’s less dangerous, more fulfilling and less mundane in the long run.

A classic case was at a company called Drake Trailers in Queensland, Australia. The bosses there installed one welding robot in 2008 and it bumped company productivity by 60 percent. So did everybody lose his or her jobs? Well, there’s the thing. At Drake, the rise in productivity and profit meant the company successfully overcame a wave of cheap imports. And that meant more jobs, not fewer. The company doubled its staff (to 140) in five years and today Drake’s payroll numbers 170.

The same thing is happening in a number of markets. Southwest Airlines recently installed check-in kiosks at LAX. Those are robots. But did the check-in humans get laid off? No. They were all re-assigned to do what humans do better than any machine. They were re-assigned to be human. To smile, listen to problems, be sensitive and sort out tricky check-in challenges.

And that’s the key to the AI and automation revolution: People-as-a-premium.

There’s no doubt employment is set to change. But we’ve managed that before. In 1900, around 50 percent of workers in the United States were employed in agriculture, according to Ben Nye, Director of Learning Sciences at the University of Southern California. The advent of tractors and combines, for instance, has meant now only 1 percent of Americans work on farms. But does this mean that unemployment rates are higher now? No.

Workforces are growing with population size. So even when unemployment headline numbers are static, that means more jobs are being created because worker numbers are rising. In any case, unemployment rates are decreasing because job creation is skyrocketing globally. And robots and automation are the drivers. How come? The Drake story tells the tale. The robot could weld much more quickly than humans, mainly because it needed less time between welds. But the 60 percent productivity bump meant bigger profits and a bigger workforce.

Will there be change? Definitely. In 2004, renowned researchers Frank Levy and Richard Murnane wrote: “The new division of labor: How computers are creating the next job market.” They were right on the money.

We will find a way to manage the change just as we did with the shift from agrarianism. We have to. The alternative is Western companies slowly dying at the hands of a marketplace that has left them behind technologically.

The shift to people-as-a-premium is happening already. We just don’t always realize it. Many of our everyday interactions are with automated systems, which really means robots. When we call banks or credit card companies, we can mostly get what we want from the system. But if we need something more complicated? We get a human. That’s people-as-a-premium right there: harnessing human capital for tasks that require human intellect, and using technology tools such as robots to increase productivity.

People like interacting with people; especially if there’s a problem or something complex to sort out. It just works better; and it always will. The trend toward robots doing the mundane, repetitive and dangerous jobs is here to stay. Let’s embrace the humanity of people skills and interaction. What we have to do is give people the space to change the kind of work they do. And we have to change the idea that mundane and repetitive jobs are good jobs. Let’s leave the drudgery to robots and trust people with more fulfilling, higher-paying human work.

By the way, a robot wrote this whole thing. (Just kidding.)