In Innovation We Trust, But Not in Automation

by Andy Heikkila

In a recent article with Bloomberg, Viktor Singh, CEO and co-founder of smart software developer Infer Inc., told writer Craig Torres why he thinks automation is proceeding so slowly:

“The biggest bottleneck to machine learning is trust,” he said.

Indeed, Bloomberg confirmed after speaking with other professionals about the main obstacles to automation’s adoption, that there was a recurring theme relating to lack of trust.

Nevertheless, you don’t need Bloomberg to tell you that people fear automation; automation is commonly linked to unemployment and chalked up as “robots stealing our jobs.” Donald Trump tapped into that fear plenty during the 2016 elections. It was palpable. Interestingly, while Trump played on this fear, he didn’t capture the reality of the situation at all.

“This is a sophisticated problem, and it demands a call to intellectual arms to not assume that it’s a binary situation,” says Amy Webb, founder of the Future Today Institute, to Forbes**. “It’s not just that jobs will be lost and that robots are taking over. It’s much more sophisticated than that.”

DeVry Bootcamp’s manufacturing professionals and authors of Making It In America: Manufacturing Industries Coming Home Again tend to agree. According to them, “manufacturers–and jobs for Americans who want to make things–are still here, but the nature of the industry has changed to incorporate more automation, more high technology, and more skilled roles for human labor. We still need makers–but we need makers with different skills than before.”

The Need to Adapt to Automation

The need to adapt to automation is real. The benefits to businesses are too great to ignore. Ohio University’s Business Technologies That Will Have Major Impact in 2017 is proof that machine learning robotics and automation are currently the forefront a disruptive wave that is changing the faces of industry everywhere.

It’s not Rosie the Robot Maid, but it’ll do.

“Thousands of industrial automation systems have been deployed worldwide. These are responsible for billions of dollars in savings, mostly in factories that construct automobiles and other large machines,” they write. “They are perfect for routine tasks where machine learning isn’t needed. Automation isn’t just confined to the factory, though. Recently, it has been used in agriculture with ultraprecise self-driving farm equipment. Automation that deals with large tracts of land, like farms, is increasingly using data supplied by unmanned aerial drones. New approaches to automation stand to lower operations costs even more.”

The point is that automation is here to stay. Those who resist instead of adapt will end up much like the Luddites resisted innovation after the introduction of weaving machinery to the textile industry in the early 1800s. The Luddites were driven by fear and the same distrust that modern opponents to disruption feel — it’s the fear of losing your jobs and your livelihood to robots. It’s the fear of being rendered obsolete. Fortunately, automation isn’t anywhere near replacing human work, even if it will alter it. John Donahoe, CEO of ServiceNow, addresses this widespread misconception **.

“There’s this assumption that it’s going to be people or robots, all or nothing. My experience is that it doesn’t operate that way. It’s automating part of the job, but not the full job. Repetitive, manual work—no one who’s doing it is really enjoying it,” he says.

This is an important distinction to make, because the loss of rote tasks doesn’t mean the loss of work, it means that the loss of a certain type of work. Namely mindless drone-work. The funny thing is, many of us utilize automation in the present without realizing that’s what we’re doing. It’s become so ingrained in the way the modern world does business that even those who are self-employed are essentially expected to use it in one way or another.

“Technology replaces and creates. It replaces manual work and creates new opportunities—new tasks, if you will,” continues Donahoe**. “And productivity creates growth, which creates new kinds of work. It is a virtuous cycle. It’s so easy to talk about it in binary terms. I just don’t think that’s the reality.”

Automation to Create Jobs and Save Lives

While there are those who worry that automation is going to be a major contributor to joblessness and the unemployment rate, others think quite the opposite. In fact, according to market research firm Forrester Research, close to 15 million new jobs will be created in the U.S. over the next decade as a direct result of automation and artificial intelligence, equivalent to 10% of the workforce.

Self-driving vehicles also constitute automated machines, and while there’s no shortage of worry that professional drivers will be put out of business, there’s also no ignoring the potential 300,000 lives that could be saved by automated vehicles per year in America alone, not counting injuries. And while you have to feel for drivers out of a job, aren’t you glad we have cars now instead of horse drawn carriages? The price of that innovation was the death of an industry which revolved around horses — blacksmith, leather workers, buggy drivers — but there were also plenty of new jobs created too, including that of mechanic, taxi driver, etc.

Our healthcare infrastructure could actually benefit greatly from automation as well. Workforce automation management can help optimize up to 50 percent of a hospital’s operating expenses, while actual robot surgeons are beginning to outperform even the best human surgeons. Even the Jeopardy-winning IBM computer named “Watson” has seen successful in creating effective cancer-treatment plans, though human bureaucracy has caused some to label its adoption at MD Anderson a failure.

Even more ambitious that saving lives on the road or in the operating theatre is creating sustainable solutions with automation to tackle things like world poverty, the spread of the Zika virus, and other world crises. One company called We Robotics is helping design local and community robots to do just that.

Building Trust in Automation

If we are ever to build trust in automation, we’re going to have to take a long hard look at what it is that we’re afraid of, and what we’re realistically willing to accept. Leighanne Levensaler, SVP of corporate strategy for Workday, makes an excellent point**.

These guys look fun–but I still want a human to give me my coffee…

“We need to keep relation­ship skills,” she says. “I went to an automated, self-serve restaurant the other day, and I felt so empty when I left. Contrast that with my coffee shop. We are hard-wired for relationships—you want the smile, the connection.”

It sounds truly like what we need to build is more trust in ourselves. Trust that we’ll use automation in the right circumstances, and that we won’t short ourselves and our human experiences just to save a buck. If we do, we may find that we’re actually able to get more in touch with ourselves, and that allowing robots to do more busy work will actually allow to learn what it is to be more human. I’ll leave you with a quote from Lynda Gratton, a professor at London Business School**.

“Most of us don’t have the reflective time that allows us to be innovative and creative. So we’ve actually destroyed our capacity to go beyond computers. But computers are always going to be more efficient than us. For us to be ­better than technology, we have to find our inner human.”

**Sourced from automation experts featured in Andrew Nusca’s recent piece, Humans vs. Robots: How to Thrive in an Automated Workplace published via Fortune Magazine.

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Andrew HeikkilaAndrew Heikkila, a tech enthusiast, and writer from Boise, Idaho, and a frequent contributor to Innovation Excellence. He also writes for Tech Crunch. You can follow him @AndyO_TheHammer

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