Automation and Worker Displacement



We live in an amazing time of technological change. The pace of advancement is greater than at any time in human history. Yet there are things we can learn from the history of technology and human productivity that can serve us well. Brookings Institute just did a great piece on looking at the history of technology to inform the regulation of AI. There is far more than regulation – how do these technological advances impact our workforce?

In the 1930s John Maynard Keynes discussed “technological unemployment” – but even in 1930, this was not a new idea.

If you transport yourself back 12-20,000 years, imagine having the conversation with the fieldworker, “Hey Joe, you’ve been doing great work irrigating the soil to help our crops, and the work you’re doing at hauling firewood has been top-notch. But we just domesticated the cow and the horse, and I’m sorry, but your job is being eliminated. I’m sure with your skills and your energy, we can find you a new role, but it’s time to think about something else in your career.”

And then, fast forward about 8,000 years, and now you are having another conversation with our metaphorical Joe. “Hey Joe, the work you’ve been doing the last few years hauling stone – and bringing crops to market has been off the charts. You are one of our fastest and most reliable workers. I wanted to share an update. The folks in the lab just invented this new technology they are calling a “wheel” and it is much faster than you are Joe -- no offense. The good news for you, Joe, is that the wheel does not replace your job – it will help you be more productive. We’ll be rolling out (pun intended) this new technology in the coming months – and there will be retraining options for you, but I wanted to give a heads up and let you know that you are a valued employee here.”

I’m certain this conversation played out with the invention of paper, water wheels, windmills, the mechanical clock, printing press, steam engine, power loom, railroad, car, TV, internet, mobile phone, and now artificial intelligence.

Is this time different?  Who can say?

I think there are lessons we can learn from these historical examples about how HR professionals can help to manage change and transition. If your job were to carry water jugs in ancient Rome, you had a rude awakening when the Aqueduct came to town – and Joe’s co-worker. “Becky, you’ve had a great career carrying water from the river into town. Your ability to balance that huge water jug on your head is the best on the team - but the new aqueduct makes your work redundant. However, with your work ethic and employment history, we think you would make a fine seamstress, but you’ll need some new training.”

What are the skills that HR professionals need to learn in today’s world of worker displacement to have these conversations?  Which are certainly not going away – and arguably happening more frequently. “Joe, with the new touch screen menus, we don’t need waiters anymore” or “Becky, the new autonomous car eliminated the need for taxi drivers, but you’ll need some new training.” “Joe, you’ve been a stock trader for years, but the algorithms are faster and more accurate than you are. We’re going to have to let you go.”

Several studies show that 40-50 percent of the workforce will have their jobs impacted by AI in the next five years, and McKinsey suggests that as many as 800 million workers could be displaced by 2030.

How do HR professionals prepare? Just as machine learning uses historical data to train the algorithms, this series takes a look back in hopes of spurring some thinking about moving forward with an informed model for how HR professionals can help guide employees in the coming age of machine intelligence.

Stay tuned...



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