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December 18, 2012

John Hagel On Rethinking Race Against The Machines



John Hagel
 
Race Against The Machine
John Hagel says we have designed jobs in the U.S. that tend to be "tightly scripted," "highly standardized," that leave no room for "individual initiative or creativity." In short, these are the types of jobs that machines can perform much better at than human beings. That is how we have put a giant target sign on the backs of American workers, Hagel says.
Entrepreneur, management consultant and author of The Only Sustainable Edge: Why Business Strategy Depends On Productive Friction And Dynamic SpecializationJohn Hagel says we have designed jobs in the U.S. that tend to be "tightly scripted," "highly standardized," that leave no room for "individual initiative or creativity." These are the types of jobs that machines can perform much better at than human beings. That is how we have put a giant target sign on the backs of American workers, Hagel says.

Hagel, author of The Power of Pull, says Brynjolfsson and McAfee miss the reason why these jobs are so vulnerable to technology in the first place.
According to Hagel, Race Against The Machine from Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee is a very interesting book. It's gotten a lot of popularity because it's targeting an issue that is front and center for a lot of people in the United States and around the world, namely the issue of jobs creation and technological unemployment. The goal of the book is to introduce technology as a key engine of the changes that we're looking at in terms of unemployment and job creation.

Technology is advancing at a very rapid pace and it is becoming more and more able to take over activities that we, as humans, have been performing. Hagel thinks the issue is, though, by framing the challenge as a technology challenge, what Brynjolfsson and McAfee miss is the reason why these jobs are so vulnerable to technology.

Essentially, if you step back and look at what the modern corporation is and how it evolved, it evolved through a model that we describe as a "push model." Basically, it has to do with developing forecasts and predictions and then making sure that the right people are in the right place at the right time and following tightly scripted activities to respond to that demand.

According to Hagel, that the real reason that we have such an issue in terms of unemployment and job loss through automation is that we've crafted these jobs exactly so that they would be vulnerable to automation. We've put kind of a bull's eye target on workers around the United States and around the world and said, "Come after me. Shoot me. I'm the target for automation." Technology's not the root cause. Technology is simply going after the target that's been put on the screen.

The root cause is how we've defined work in companies and that the opportunity now is to step back and say, "Is that the way we need work to be done?" One of the issues is this formula for how work is conducted was developed in the last century, and it was based on a set of infrastructures and assumption of a stable environment that made it easy to define standardized highly-scripted work.

"Now we're in a world that's more rapidly changing, more uncertainty, more of those extreme events that Taleb calls the "black swans" that make it really critical for us as individuals in the workplace to take much more initiative, to be constantly exercising creativity and imagination to respond to the unexpected events. That's a very different model of work. It requires a very different way of organizing our institutions and a different set of work practices that are much harder to automate."

When you have that kind of imagination, creativity, trust-based relationships that are required to really address these hard problems, it makes it much less vulnerable to that kind of automation. So Hagel's belief is that if you focus on that as the root cause, now the problem is not technology. The problem is how do we innovate our institutions and our work practices so that we, in fact, can -- the authors have a very nice phrase that they call rather than "race against the machines," we ought to start "racing with the machine."

"Unfortunately, I don't think they developed that very well in the book. They kind of offer it as a case for optimism at the very end without a lot of deep content, but the content I think about racing with the machine is stepping back and reassessing what are institutions for? What kinds of work practices are required in order to pursue that institutional mission? And in that context, I think you now are able to race with the machine."

While Hagel is correct in saying that the sections on how to "race with the machine" are not as well established as the preceding chapters, his view of the book is a bit oversimplified.  Brynjolfsson and McAfee provide economic and statistical evidence for technological unemployment taking place, and are pretty clear that the jobs that will be impacted most severely in the near-term are the monotonous,  repetitive and non-creative ones first.

What Hagel seems to overlook is that through the increasing power of exponential technology machines themselves will become (or seem to become) creative.  Artificial intelligence will allow machines to write, conceptualize and think for themselves.  This means that along with the basic jobs that are being automated, no job is safe.  Professions like lawyers, doctors, engineers and even management consultants will likely (sooner than later) find themselves also facing technological unemployment due to the rise of artificial intelligence systems.

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