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What Can You Do that Computers Can’t?

Aug. 17, 2015
If recent developments are any indication, staying relevant in the work force is going to require a sea change in the way workers think about computers, the Internet of Things, and what humans bring to the equation.
John S. Rinaldi is president of Real Time Automation

W – O – R – K

It’s not often that I start these articles off with a four-letter word, but it’s the topic for this month. And unlike those television ads with all the small print at the bottom of the screen, I’m going to give my disclaimer right up front and in readable text:

The content of this article isn’t pretty. It’s not going to be gentle, kind, soothing, or relaxing. In fact, it’s going to be decidedly uncomfortable, painful, and may be difficult to accept. You may wish to have a glass and a strong adult beverage close at hand while you reading. I had one or two while writing it.

I learned about work from my Italian immigrant parents in a traditional American home. My dad worked two jobs. One was a traditional factory job as first shift maintenance mechanic at Miller brewery. He was there when Mr. Miller would come by on your birthday and hand you a case of beer. At that time, drinking on the job wasn’t concern. There was always a fully stocked tub of Miller in the lunch room. At 3 p.m., my father would go to his other job: cement contractor pouring patios, garage slabs, and sidewalks. He worked, like many men of that era, 14 to 16 hours a day. My mother was the homemaker. That was typical of the neighborhood and society in general. Two or three generations of Americans came of age in that kind of environment.

But that’s over in more ways than one. Our children are going to face a totally different and possibly much harsher reality.

The nature of work is evolving. It’s evolving faster than ever. Faster than many of us can emotionally and psychologically manage. The range and scope of change in what we do and how we do it is transitioning at a rate unprecedented in human history.

We were an agricultural society for 12,000 years. We worked the land. That’s it. Unchanging and static for thousands of years. That changed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was called the Industrial Revolution, and over three or four generations we transitioned from that agricultural society to an industrial society. Then, in the late 20th century, we hit the information age. In the space of a single generation, computers and the Internet vastly changed what we do and how we do it. This time, in a single generation, we went from no computers to every job involving some sort of computer device.

It’s happening again. But this transformation is happening even faster and with an even more significant impact on how we work and how we live. Robotics, Automation and the Internet of Things are driving this transformation, and it’s going to happen more quickly than ever: possibly within the next 10 years.

Are you one of those people that believe that there are jobs that computers can’t do? Your job, for example? You’re probably wrong. The Pepper Robot from SoftBank can sense and react appropriately to human emotions. Who ever imagined that? Robots are now not just assisting in surgery but performing the surgery. The first automated, driverless trucks are hitting the road this year with the potential to displace 2.9 million, mostly middle-class, mostly male, truck drivers. Women aren’t immune to this. The largest segment of female jobs, the personal assistant, is also under assault from automation and technology. Add those jobs to the list along with travel agents, real-estate brokers, and everyone else whose job has either been eliminated, radically transformed, or devalued. William Bossert, legendary Harvard professor, summed it up by saying, “If you’re afraid that you might be replaced by a computer, you probably can be—and probably should be.”

We are on the precipice of a rapid and radical transformation of our society. It is happening more suddenly than our social, political, and emotional systems can manage. And most of our responses are weak or ill-conceived. Governments seeking to impose prosperity are merely accelerating this transformation. A government decreeing that some work is to be paid x% more without a corresponding increase in productivity by x% is throwing gasoline on the flames of this transformation.

Those of us in Industrial Automation aren’t immune to this transformation. Automation used to be about controllers, sensors, and actuators. It was about ladder logic programming, drive configuration and timing of gears, pushers, and belts. It’s now rapidly becoming about data, systems integration, security, and networking. In short, Industrial Automation work is now more of an IT job than a controls job. If you’re a controls guy under 55 and you’re not learning IT tools, techniques, and skills, you’re not ready for the tsunami that’s headed your way. Approaching 60 or older? You’ve got a chance to skate through, but that window is closing quickly.

Look at Industry 4.0 in Germany. That effort is focused on eliminating all the effort to configure machines. The goal is to have self-configuring machines that talk to other machines and decide how they should work together. Can’t be done, you say? The same was said about computers playing chess, driving cars, and translating languages. The first prototypes of Industry 4.0 machines are now able to work together to develop and configure the machining of parts no matter how those machines are ordered. We need to open our eyes to the future. It’s going to happen. And it’s not going to be pretty.

Many are asking the question, “What are the things that computers can’t do?” That’s the wrong question, says Geoff Colvin in the book Humans are Underrated. The question shouldn’t be what work can computers not do; it should be “What work can and should humans do?”

So, what are humans good at? What should humans do? What’s important to us? Those are the important questions as we face the future.

What humans want more than anything else is human interaction, especially with highly personal, intimate matters. Those aren’t highly personal interactions that ATMs have replaced. “ATM” kinds of activities, activities that are transaction-oriented without personal interaction, are exactly the kinds of job that are going to be lost in the future.

But when it comes to other areas of our lives, areas that involve highly personal and important matters, we want real, live, accountable humans to work with us. No one wants to discuss their cancer diagnosis with a robot doctor, no matter how knowledgeable or how compassionate the robotic face can be made to appear. No one wants to discuss your child’s problems in math or chemistry with a machine. Nor do you want to discuss the future plans for your neighborhood or city with a machine.

Humans are exceptionally good at leadership, social collaboration, goal setting, teaching, coaching, encouraging, and selling. These are innate, very human skills that possibly could be replaced by automation but that we don’t want replaced. A robot can teach math. It may even sense the emotions of the children, but it’s not what we as a society want or, I think, will ever want. We’ll always want and value these soft skills.

There isn’t a lot of good news here for us engineers. We’re guys for the most part, and soft skills aren’t what we’ve specialized in. We like to take things apart and build things. Generally, guys like working with things, not people. Those jobs are still going to exist in the future, but a lot of that may get automated. What’s left may still be important, but it may not be valued as highly as the jobs that have personal interaction.

Women definitely have an advantage here. Women generally prefer working with people more than things. Over thousands of years, building alliances, forming friendships, and getting groups of people to cooperate was a matter of survival for women. These skills, which a lot of women seem to be innately good at, are going to become exceptionally valuable in the future.

As men, we’ll do what we have to do. We’ll make the transition even though it won’t be comfortable. It’s our children that really worry me. Just as social skills are becoming more valuable, our children are becoming less socially capable than ever. Many spend less time in personal, human interaction than they do in electronic interaction. That’s not going to prepare them for a world where social skills like leadership, collaboration, selling and organizing are going to be the valuable skills to have.

So what’s the good news? That’s certainly a lot of bad news. For men certainly, but for women too.

The good news is that humans are nothing but adaptable. We’ll change. We’ll refocus. We’ll apply ourselves and conquer this new era of automation and robotics.

We actually don’t have a choice.

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