Joint Effort

In the 'machine versus human' debate, Thomas H Davenport and Julia Kirby argue that the answer is in marrying the two

Published 6 years ago on May 25, 2018 3 minutes Read

Let’s be clear: Humans are problematic as workers. First of all, they’re expensive, and they only get more so. On top of their basic wage, they cost their employers a third again more in payroll taxes, paid time off, health insurance, 401(k) contributions, and other perks. Think that’s all? Ask any facilities manager. Humans need ergonomic workspaces, heat, and light. Plumbing. All this is expensive, but it gets uglier. Ask any corporate counsel if humans like to bring lawsuits. Ask any security officer if embezzlement happens. Ask any inventory managers if they know about shrinkage. Ask any human resource executive what percentage of employees are engaged in their work (the average is 13 percent in the U.S.). But the trouble with human workers is a bigger deal than even that. Technologies get smarter and cheaper all the time, but humans as a group don’t. You can’t simply download preexisting knowledge to a human. Every human starts at square one.

That trading floor is therefore a chilling scene. But at the same time it’s too comforting. It implies that “jobs” remain intact and the only problem is that some can now be taken by machines. That’s a source of solace to all of us who can name the reasons our own jobs can’t be accomplished by machines. But the truth is that jobs are not irreducible. All jobs are really amalgams of tasks, and every job today has some parts that can be effectively automated. The fact that no machine will ever be able to decide, as the executive director of the Pantone Color Institute does, that the design community will embrace “marsala” as 2015’s color of the year, or to predict, as executives must in an acquisition opportunity, whether the top talent of the targeted company will thrive or wilt in the proposed merged culture, or to compose a sentence, as we are doing, that rivals late novelist David Foster Wallace’s in its ability to remain grammatical while becoming remarkably convoluted does not mean that machines can’t take over the large proportions of a knowledge workers’ days that are not devoted to such rarefied tasks.

As computer programs focus on the tasks they can do, it’s those pieces of jobs that are taken away. The encroachment happens one task at a time, meaning that a job that is only 10 percent automatable doesn’t go away. It’s just that, now, nine holders of that job can do what used to be the work of ten. This is why, outside The Twilight Zone, you’ve seen virtually no one being summoned into an office and introduced to the computer who will now be doing his job. Instead, they’re just nudged, nudged, nudged toward the door.

And again, as with the manual workers who were tired of the dangerous, dirty, and dull aspects of their day, those nine people who continue to do a job are usually more than happy to see that particular 10 percent of their work go. There are loads of tasks they would rather not spend their time doing. The bane of a lawyer’s existence, for example, is “discovery”—the tedious process of sifting through documents and deposition transcripts in search of nuggets pertaining to a lawsuit. When “e-discovery” and “predictive coding” arrived on the scene, allowing much of this text review to be automated, few shouted their objections. All of us want to have our skills leveraged. In our work, we are all like Sherlock Holmes: We abhor the dull routine of existence.

This is an extract from Thomas H Davenport and Julia Kirby's Only Humans Need Apply published by Harper Business