The Age of Automation has opened in corporate America. That’s hardly news, but what’s less understood is the extent of the disruption it is set to impose on working men and women in the near term and the end state it will likely create in the workplace further down the road.
At the current rate that AI and machine learning technology is replacing people:
- The Boston Consulting Group estimates that 23 percent of all human industrial jobs will be terminated in just the next two years.
- McKinsey & Company estimates that 40 percent of all knowledge jobs will suffer the same fate in the next 10 years.
In effect, tens of thousands of blue-collar and white-collar workers are already being replaced by byte-collar workers. And many more will shortly suffer the same fate. Even the C-suite isn’t immune. A Hong Kong company recently added a smart machine to its board of directors.
Where will all this end?
Within 100 years or circa 2118, smart machine technology will transform the graph of employment in the American workplace. It will create the quintessential organization machine — the 22nd century analog of the 1950’s organization man — and displace human workers throughout the private sector, in both for-profit and not-for-profit organizations.
These machines won’t destructure big transnational corporations and smaller local companies. They won’t eliminate all jobs, but they will instead push humans out of all of the jobs that do exist. Intelligent, strong and empathetic machines — a genus best described as super-capable or super-C machines — will designate humans as persona non grata in the enterprise. The visionary corporate leader and bright up-and-comer … gone. The savvy professional and dependable contributor … gone. The loyal employee and helpful coworker … gone. The team player, innovative thinker, and colorful colleague … all gone.
Ironically, in most companies, the responsibility for implementing this shift will be assigned to the human resource department. For years, HR professionals have been lobbying for “a seat at the table” where key corporate decisions are made and strategies are formulated. They will finally get that opportunity over the next 100 years as only they will know how to manage the machine juggernaut. Only they will have the expertise to formulate a corporate strategy for eliminating human workers, and only they will have the dedication to implement it in accordance with all legal requirements and with as much compassion as possible.
A new term will join the business lexicon of “downsizing” and “rightsizing” as HR professionals perform “finalsizing.” They will execute the first layoffs and the subsequent ones, as well, until finally, they give notice to the last of the human workers who remain on-the-job. Then, they will pack up the pictures on their own desks and turn out the lights as they too leave the workplace for the final time. The byte-collar workers that replace them will happily work in the dark.
While these displacements will be disruptive and often hurtful, others will actually be welcome, at least while there are still humans employed in the workplace. In addition to taking jobs away from an organization’s key contributors, super-C machines will also push out the less conscientious and capable in the organization, and these people will likely be among the first eliminated. Gone, for example, will be the Rip Van Winkles, Luddites, slackers, and watercooler gossips. So too will be the perennially late and disruptive, the hyper-critical and mean-spirited, the insensitive and loud-mouthed.
Indeed, these reductions-in-(human) force will seem like a long overdue housecleaning in corporate America. Though the sanitizing will be uneven and sometimes misdirected, machines will dispatch the sexual harassers and bullies as well as the bigots, haters and trolls. They will displace the cheats and thieves as well as those who are abusive and potentially violent. And in some organizations, at least, they’ll also slam the door on the CEOs who line their own pockets at the expense of their employees and the managers who make decisions that pollute the planet and devastate communities.
The end state will be something best described as the automated enterprise. Byte-collar workers will fill every job from mail room clerk to chief executive officer. They will do the work once performed by research scientists and lab technicians, product designers and engineers, and project managers of every stripe. They will displace salespeople and marketing professionals, labor relations managers and recruiters, information technologists and data analysts, accounts payable clerks and procurement specialists, inhouse corporate counsel and company ombudsmen.
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Machines will still be “minded” by humans — “managed” being too strong a word — but these minders will be few in number and serve in more of a fail-safe than a functional role, performing tasks similar to what humans do now in a driverless car. They may also serve for awhile as the customer interface for companies, at least until the chatbots, humanoids and other support machines become fully mature and are made widely available. Once that occurs, however, companies large and small, domestic and global will become almost entirely automated and largely autonomous. They will close their office suites and cubicle farms and move most of their operations to disk space on a server farm.
No aspect of the enterprise will be immune. Super-C machines will even disrupt the chain of command. They will eliminate first line supervisors and middle managers as well as high potentials, up and comers, and the most senior executives. They will consign intuition and experience to the corporate dumpster and rely, instead, on “big data” and the power of advanced analytics for decision making, operations integration, and performance management. They will not need corporate memos or policy and procedures manuals, multi-level sign-offs, or endless team meetings to arrive at a consensus business strategy. By the time 2118 arrives, the organization man and woman will be unnecessary and unwanted, superseded by their code-based coworker.
Which begs the question — what will humans do when machines take over? Losing the ability to achieve that sense of a day well spent will traumatize many, maybe even most American workers. It will call into question their worth as a person and their value as a contributing member of society. It will shake their self-confidence and undermine their self-esteem. For men and women raised to see themselves as independent and capable wage earners — whether that wage is an hourly paycheck or a salary in six figures — being unable to play that role will cast them as useless or, worse, as losers in society.
There is, however, an alternative perspective. When machines take on all of the trials and tribulations of working, when they are responsible for all of the obligations and to-dos of a job and a boss, humans will acquire the freedom to examine and enhance their lives. When machines are harnessed to the daily grind of employment, humans will finally get to work on themselves. To discover and express their unique capacity for excellence and to search for answers to questions beyond the comprehension of even the most intelligent machine. To find and experience what inspires and fulfills them.
It won’t be easy to achieve that state, but for the first time ever, it will be possible to do so. Admittedly, the country will have to make some significant adjustments — implementing, for example, a Universal Basic Income, as Bill Gates and others have proposed — but with those structural elements in place, Americans will be free to recognize and realize the purpose of being human. They will have the opportunity to reach for their inherent dignity and exceptionalism. They will be able to ennoble themselves.
Adapted from Circa 2118: What Will Humans Do When Machines Take Over, TAtech Books, September 2018.