Automation for the People
by Dan Pontefract

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Athens, Georgia, based restaurant Weaver D’s Delicious Fine Foods was once honored by an American Classics awards to recognize “good, down-home food” and “unmatched hospitality” – for its “spot-on fried chicken, sweet potato casserole, buttermilk cornbread, and … signature squash casserole.” G.P. Dexter Weaver, the legendary owner, wants its service to be known as “automatic for the people”, a term fellow Athens rock band R.E.M. used as an album title.


Wherever one looks researchers are predicting that “automatic for the people” is morphing into something we might coin “automation for the people”.


Researchers at the University of Oxford indicated 47 percent of employees in the U.S. are at risk of losing their jobs due to automation. In Australia, a recent report by the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) suggests 40 percent of all jobs — more than 5 million— face the likelihood of being replaced by computers in the next 10 to 15 years. It is no better in the United Kingdom either. Deloitte pointed out that 35 percent of all jobs across the U.K. will disappear by 2035. The authors further state “jobs paying less than £30,000 a year are nearly five times more likely to be lost to automation than jobs paying over £100,000.”


Perhaps these predicted twists will end up becoming “automatic for the unemployed.” If you believe the prognosticators, society might be left with 40 percent of the workforce unemployed, or underemployed.


Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, in their recent book The Second Machine Age, argue that automation and advanced technologies are root causes to the widening income gap. In 2003, Maarten Goos and Alan Manning coined this phenomenon “job polarization”. Brynjolfsson and McAfee suggest that such advances in concepts such as robotics and artificial intelligence may help to increase overall productivity, but it results in an ironic lack of job creation.


Indeed, the current state seems to have become “automation against the people.”


But there are those who believe this sort of advanced technology can actually accrue benefits to humans.


David Autor, economics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is a firm believer that the so-called “smart machines” are not that smart and it is the tacit forms of knowledge that humans naturally possess that ensure we will forever remain “automatic for the people”. In a paper published in 2014, Autor presented many points suggesting automation is a good thing for society.


He cautioned that human capital investment “must be at the heart of any long-term strategy for producing skills that are complemented rather than substituted by technology.” He argued that job polarization will eventually disappear because “many of the middle skill jobs that persist in the future will combine routine technical tasks with the set of non-routine tasks in which workers hold comparative advantage” including behavioral attributes such as adaptability, problem-solving, interpersonal interaction and flexibility.


Perhaps the future Autor describes has already arrived.


Autonomous haulage is beginning to take shape in the harsh climate of Northern Alberta throughout the oil sands. Gigantic $150 million trucks are not only expensive, they can be dangerous. A lot can go wrong when 8000 tonnes of dirt is moved 365 days a year by humans. Before self-driving trucks, there were normally four human drivers for each truck, and one mechanic for every 4-6 trucks. It was labour intensive, risky work.


My organization, TELUS, a $12 billion Canadian telecommunications firm, has been working with the oil companies to create pervasive wireless coverage that permits self-driving trucks to operate in those harsh conditions all-day, every day. This has decreased collisions, rollovers and accidents because the autonomous driving error rates are lower than humans.


Improving safety has been a key motivator for the oil companies – not the elimination of jobs. In fact, oil companies encourage workers to achieve their mechanic’s license –to safeguard the 24-hour cycle needed to keep the new trucks running. Perhaps this is an example of Autor’s point about comparative advantage. It is not as though a mechanic’s role can be automated. The oil companies need humans to fix an offline truck resulting in driver jobs being shifted to mechanic jobs.


Within TELUS, “automation for the people” is being meshed with the “automatic for the people” customer service ethos that Dexter Weaver defined earlier.


The team behind much of our client experience processes developed “Next Best Action” that uses a combination of big data, artificial intelligence and automation to improve the entire customer experience.


“Next Best Action” ensures call center agents and team members in our face-to-face stores have the details to be far more proactive – and arguably human – with a customer’s inquiry than ever before. For example, if a client calls into the customer care team, there is automated logic that then routes the call to the right person in the right department saving time for both sides. Data is constantly being fed into a predictive analyzer which speeds up the potential to solve a customer issue. The opportunity is to merge automation and artificial intelligence with a far more customized human touch.


The goal is not to replace call center or store agents with automation; it is using the advanced technologies we continue to develop and invest in to further improve the overarching customer experience with our team members.


But might those computers ever completely take over?


I asked David Autor if organizations should be worried about the so-called technological singularity, where computers and robots might learn how to redesign and improve their existing functionality, to ultimately become better than humans. His response said it all. “No, they should not be worried,” Autor said. “The machines work for us. If they can ultimately do our jobs for us, then we are richer not poorer as a result.”


Autor also introduced me to the observations of economist, computer scientist, and Nobel laureate Herbert Simon, who wrote in 1966 during another time of automation anxiety: “Insofar as they are economic problems at all, the world’s problems in this generation and the next are problems of scarcity, not of intolerable abundance. The bogeyman of automation consumes worrying capacity that should be saved for real problems.”


Put differently, “automation for the people” has been around for a long time.


I have never visited Weaver D’s Delicious Fine Foods restaurant yet, but when I do get there, I know there will be a smiling human being serving me. Indeed, “automatic for the people” will be sticking around in perpetuity, most likely assisted by “automation with the people”.

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