The rise of the robots should lead to mass augmentation not automation

13 March 2017

Pietro Micheli, Associate Professor of Organizational Performance, believes the threat of robots taking over millions of jobs can be mitigated if companies adopted human-centred design.

From washing machines to freezers, from mobile phones to MRI scanners, it is easy to see how much we have benefited from technological innovations over the past century.

Such innovations have not only enhanced our quality of life, but they have also made certain jobs – especially the dull, dirty and dangerous ones – obsolete. No one today would like to go back to the days of washerwomen or ice cutters.

Which jobs are under threat from the rise of the robots?

More recently, advances in digital technology have taken centre stage, from the Internet of Things - the connection via the internet of devices embedded in everyday objects, which enables them to exchange data - to Industry 4.0 - automation and data exchange in production facilities - to artificial intelligence and machine learning.

Such developments differ from previous technological innovations in at least two ways. First, these innovations can help automate a wide variety of jobs and not necessarily low skilled ones. Essentially, jobs that are data-rich, codified and have to produce a standardised output could be automated.

For example, in financial services, accounting and auditing firms, intelligent machines could (and already do) replace humans, as they can undertake the same tasks in more efficient ways. The same could apply to radiologists, insurers, performance analysts and more. This time knowledge workers’ jobs are under threat.

Second, changes could happen much more rapidly than in the past and entire professions could disappear. For instance, once vehicles are fully autonomous, lorry drivers and taxi drivers won’t be needed anymore.

Negative consequences on employment and a great concentration of profits in the hands of firms and producers of intelligent machines have triggered various critical responses. For example, Bill Gates - despite having considerably benefited from digital innovation himself - recently proposed to tax robots. 

Related course: MSc Management of Information Systems & Digital Innovation

"If a robot comes in to do the same thing [as a human], you’d think that we’d tax the robot at a similar level”, he declared.

However, notwithstanding the practical difficulty in deciding what should be taxed and how, this is unlikely to change much; at most, it could slow down the process of adoption of new technology.

On the other hand, it is clear that, while automation could deliver benefits in the form of cost reductions, lower lead times and less waste in processes, it could also create environments where humans will be progressively de-skilled, if not made redundant.

Even though the debate on the impact of digital technology on jobs is dominated by the advocates and the critics of automation, this is not the only option.

A viable alternative that does neither embrace nor reject digital innovations is the one of human-centred design, which favours augmentation rather than automation.

According to this perspective, technology’s purpose is not to remove humans, as imperfect and costly agents (who are sometimes ill, go on holiday and need a pension). Instead, it is to enhance their abilities and to enable them to do something that they could not do otherwise.

How can jobs be saved in the face of mass automation?

Examples of human-centred design applied to digital technology are many, from telemedicine to flight controls, from garments that support muscular strength to the computer I’m using to write this article

Essentially, human-centred design technology is directed towards enriching humans – intended as both employees and users – and its impact should be assessed not in terms of basic time and cost reductions, but in relation to the variety and novelty of outcomes attained.

Moreover, technological innovations should be conceived and developed with humans in mind, and technology should be regarded as a means to an end (ie to support the work of humans), rather than as an end in itself.

We should probably focus our efforts less on our capacity to be efficient and capable of processing data (robots are already way ahead), and more on nurturing our creativity, emotional intelligence, communication, and express and grow our – human – potential. 

Pietro Micheli teaches Managing Organisational Performance on the Executive MBA and Executive MBA (London). He also lectures on Leading the Knowledge Based Organisation on the suite of MSc Business courses, and Design in Business on the MSc Management.