Don’t underestimate humans in the future of work

By Kieran Madden November 03, 2020

“Excessive automation at Tesla was a mistake,” reflected tech luminary Elon Musk. “Humans are underrated.”

For someone like Musk, whose identity and fortune is founded on cutting-edge technological innovation, this admission is as astonishing as it is humbling. His comments were made in response to the production delay caused by his technologically-advanced, yet overly-complex, Tesla 3 production line. More technology introduced more problems. Musk scrapped the whole thing, resorting to pulling all-nighters at the factory to overhaul the system and get things back on track.

Perhaps it was Musk’s uncomfortable experience sleeping on the factory floor that forced him to come to terms with the reality that robots won’t be taking all our jobs anytime soon. There has been a “long history of leading thinkers overestimating the potential of new technologies to substitute for human labour and underestimating the potential to complement it,” according to MIT Economist David Autor.

We need to tap into this potential, and shift our focus from worrying about how many jobs might be lost to automation towards a deliberate transition to a new world of work where our distinctly human abilities to be creative, work collaboratively, and think critically for example—what some call “soft” or “character” skills—will be the key to success.

Yes, the research is clear that jobs that involve a lot of “routine” and “predictable” tasks remain particularly susceptible to getting replaced by robots. Cushioning the impact for those affected and helping them reskill are immediate challenges.

But, as Harvard economist David Deming says, “it has proven devilishly difficult to program a machine for even a short, unstructured conversation with a human being, much less to engage in the kind of flexible teamwork that is increasingly needed in the modern economy.” There will always be a demand for the human touch, and this demand has already grown in recent years.

Research has shown, for example, how jobs requiring social skills have grown twice as fast as those requiring maths skills over the past thirty years in the US. The real predicted growth, however, is in roles that combine “hard” technical and “soft”  interpersonal skills, like doctors, engineers, or computer scientists working in group settings. Big data analysis of job advertisements In New Zealand supports this finding, showing that the kinds of jobs set to grow here involve these complementary skillsets.

The time is right to reshape our education, training, and development systems accordingly. One opportunity here is to promote the ailing liberal arts and the humanities alongside STEM subjects. Another is to further support parenting and programmes that lay the foundation for these skills in the early years when young brains are at their most malleable.

Humans have been underrated when it comes to the future of work. We need not view the future as a threat—with nightmarish visions of machines causing mass unemployment—but rather one of opportunity: where jobs of the future harness the complementary strengths of humans and technology. We must, as Andreas Schleicher from the OECD puts it, forget about developing “second-class robots” and more on “first-class humans.”

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