Automation is something of a dirty word. As a general trend, it’s met with worry more often than with enthusiasm. Trust in automation is very, very low.
For instance, a 2017 study from Pew asked Americans whether they were worried or enthusiastic about automation in a few areas of daily life, and they said: worried. 72% said they are worried about a future where robots and computers can do many human jobs. 67% are worried about the development of algorithms that can evaluate and hire job candidates, while 54% are worried about the development of driverless vehicles. A relatively low 47% said they were worried about the development of robot caregivers for older adults – but that’s still nearly half of respondents.
The wariness is warranted, in some ways. Automation represents brand new technology and untested territory. And there are some high-profile, catastrophic results contributing to its reputation problem. Automation can only do what we tell it to do –it’s limited by both the things we don’t know to tell it, and by the possibility that our human instructions are correct but not designed correctly. There’s a lot of alligators in the moat.
Still, there are two things about automation that may get overlooked, which may both mitigate the worst-fear scenarios that dominate its reputation.
- Automation’s progress has been slower than expected.
Automation has not progressed at the rapid clip that many projected.
Consider the Jetsons, a popular futuristic cartoon made in the 1960s and again in the 1980s. It was meant to be set in an undetermined future year – let’s just say their smartwatches look an awful lot like ours. But as the futuristic creators imagined it, people who had smartwatches would also have flying cars and itty bitty personal jetpacks, and would have robots for every bit of day-to-day labor around the house. A similar phenomenon dominates the 1989 movie Back to the Future II, meant to be set in the year 2015: they correctly anticipated video call technology and the ubiquity of flatscreen TVs, but predict that these technologies will be synchronous with hoverboards and microwaving food capsules into full steaming meals.
Real life, in some cases, closely match the 80s film imaginations – some technologies have spread like wildfire in work and home life. But many aspects of our daily lives remain untouched. Actual progress in automation has been quite a bit slower than many forecasts have supposed. As the outgoing CEO of GE, Jeff Immelt, put it: “I think this notion that we are all going to be in a room full of robots in five years … and that everything is going to be automated, it’s just BS. It’s not the way the world is going to work.”
- People can still see the human value in their own jobs.
When people are asked to estimate how many jobs will be replaced by automation, they give high numbers. In the Pew survey, 77% said it’s realistic that robots and computers might one day be able to do a lot of the jobs currently done by humans.
But only about 30% of the same respondents said they expect automation to take over their own job in their lifetime. Arguably, workers have a much more detailed understanding of the pieces of their own jobs that could successfully be automated – and those that can’t. The fear of automation looms large and unspecific, but the on-the-ground picture for workers is much more contained.
The reality of automation
Automation is coming for us all, and we can’t trust it, seems to be the default thinking. However, its actual implementation in daily life is much more incremental. It’s a bit-by-bit progression rather than an epidemic where the work of humans is eradicated. Its effects are quite real, in some industries, and not to be downplayed. But there is a mismatch, too, in the way we see it affecting jobs.
Trust is a real problem when it comes to the broadest concepts of automation, and the perceived threat to jobs is probably a key driver of mistrust. A more realistic view is one that sees that slow and incremental rollout in daily life – a scenario where the humans retain more control.
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