In a world where we know adoption of new technology almost always leads to a reduction in labour requirements (or in real terms, people’s jobs), do we, the practitioners, in the technology space have a moral obligation to protect people’s current way of life?
It’s a question that government and economists are thinking about, but are we?
A recent report out of Australia by a Productivity Commission estimates that “digital disruption has the potential to threaten 40 per cent of jobs over the next 10 to 15 years as automation and machine learning shake up the economy”. Reporting of that study has been negatively slanted because we as a society haven’t truly understood the value of the digital economy. We use traditional methods of measuring economic growth that do not contemplate the contribution of electronic trade into economic measures, such GDP. The result is politicians and economists using old methods of measurement and success are swayed into traditional thinking, thereby attributing any disruption as a threat.
The benefits of technology disruption are both vast and significant. Technology that replaces manual tasks can be very beneficial to the greater good of society and the economy. Removing the need for dangerous jobs has a significant impact on health and safety, and in some cases, of a life itself. Smart data science allows for better decision making and efficiency gains with the resultant productivity boost improving capital efficiency. The issue arises that we all realise and appreciate the standard of life improvement that advanced communication, personal wearables, and access to information can provide to our private lives but when it costs us our jobs….
The job I have as part of Advisian – Digital Enterprise involves working everyday with companies to help achieve their digital transformation strategy. Invariably, the first serious conversation I have with a client around a potential digital transformation is what is the value proposition? What is the tangible return of an investment? The subsequent discussion typically then goes down three paths: value of the reduction of risk to personnel, asset or environment; value in the improvement in production; or, the reduction of cost. The last one in most cases means a reduction in workforce as the technology replaces, shortens or reduces the manpower requirements of manual tasks. That replacement of manual activities by technology is nothing new; it’s been happening since the industrial age. One difference today is we are now introducing the replacement of knowledge-based activities such as Engineering, Finance, Education, and even Law. White-collar professionals are now being disrupted by data science and technology.
So it brings me back to the moral obligation dilemma. Do we have one – and if so, what should we do? I believe we need to think about both sides. Yes, drive digital solutions that make businesses more efficient by eliminating tasks and roles, but also think about the new end users, the data-augmented super-worker that can produce more output than ever before. That requires us to make the technology intuitive, easy to use, embraceable, accessible and without bias. If we do that, then I believe we have completed our obligation.
If I return to the industrial revolution, the companies and countries that embraced the technology replacement of manual workers dominated the centuries that followed. It is not a stretch to see a similar path today. Let’s focus on driving productivity, being smarter, doing more with more and not being protectionist of jobs that need to evolve. I do feel for the workers that may be impacted short-term but am excited by the possibilities of working with people who embrace the possibility and achieve true change.
Of course it all sounds good until we make a machine that replaces what I do…..