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How automation could take your skills -- and your job

Patrick Thibodeau | Nov. 11, 2014
A new book by Nicholas Carr should give IT managers pause about the rush to automation

What is the risk, if there is a de-skilling of software development and automation takes on too much of the task of writing code?
There are very different views on this. Not everyone agrees that we are seeing a de-skilling effect in programming itself. Other people are worried that we are beginning to automate too many of the programming tasks. I don't have enough in-depth knowledge to know to what extent de-skilling is really happening, but I think the danger is the same danger when you de-skill any expert task, any professional task, ...you cut off the unique, distinctive talents that human beings bring to these challenging tasks that computers simply can't replicate: creative thinking, conceptual thinking, critical thinking and the ability to evaluate the task as you do it, to be kind of self-critical. Often, these very, what are still very human skills, that are built on common sense, a conscious understanding of the world, intuition through experience, things that computers can't do and probably won't be able to do for long time, it's the loss of those unique human skills, I think, [that] gets in the way of progress.

What is the antidote to these pitfalls?
In some places, there may not be an antidote coming from the business world itself, because there is a conflict in many cases between the desire to maximize efficiency through automation and the desire to make sure that human skills, human talents, continue to be exercised, practiced and expanded. But I do think we're seeing at least some signs that a narrow focus on automation to gain immediate efficiency benefits may not always serve a company well in the long term. Earlier this year, Toyota Motor Co., announced that it had decided to start replacing some of its robots in it Japanese factories with human beings, with crafts people. Even though it has been out front, a kind of a pioneer of automation, and robotics and manufacturing, it has suffered some quality problems, with lots of recalls. For Toyota, quality problems aren't just bad for business, they are bad for its culture, which is built on a sense of pride in the quality that it historically has been able to maintain. Simply focusing on efficiency, and automating everything, can get in the way of quality in the long-term because you don't have the distinctive perspective of the human craft worker. It went too far, too quickly, and lost something important.

Gartner recently came out with a prediction that in approximately 10 years about one third of all the jobs that exist today will be replaced by some form of automation. That could be an over-the-top prediction or not. But when you think about the job market going forward, what kind of impact do you see automation having?
I think that prediction is probably over aggressive. It's very easy to come up with these scenarios that show massive job losses. I think what we're facing is probably a more modest, but still ongoing destruction or loss of white collar professional jobs as computers become more capable of undertaking analyses and making judgments. A very good example is in the legal field, where you have seen, and very, very quickly, language processing software take over the work of evidence discovery. You used to have lots of bright people reading through various documents to find evidence and to figure out relationships among people, and now computers can basically do all that work, so lots of paralegals, lots of junior lawyers, lose their jobs because computers can do them. I think we will continue to see that kind of replacement of professional labor with analytical software. The job market is very complex, so it's easy to become alarmist, but I do think the big challenge is probably less the total number of jobs in the economy then the distribution of those jobs. Because as soon as you are able to automate what used to be very skilled task, then you also de-skill them and, hence, you don't have to pay the people who do them as much. We will probably see a continued pressure for the polarization of the workforce and the erosion of good quality, good paying middle class jobs.

 

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