People Are Not Machines

An article in the NY Times this past weekend really caught my eye. The title referenced “Robot’s Ways of Rub Off on Humans, and writer Noam Scheiber says in the body of the piece, “This steady stripping of human judgment from work is one of the most widespread consequences of automation — not so much replacing people with robots as making them resemble robots.”

 I really enjoyed the article and felt Scheiber did a great job exploring the actualities of jobs on the warehouse floor in tech giant Amazon’s warehouse, an environment replicated in large fulfillment centers across the country. Through the writer’s visit to the data center, we are invited into potent conversations about the roles of machines and automation in our work lives.

 Much has been written about the concerns of human jobs being outsourced by machines, but Scheiber’s article points to another, equally dark, side of technologies impacts: it  makes people act more like machines, and less like themselves.

 In my book, Bravespace Workplace, I tackle the issue in Chapter 2 AI, Machines, and Robots, Oh My! and reflect that “today’s computers, supercomputers, and quantum computers all must follow the rules of logic that underlie Turing’s mathematical proof: there are and always will be some things that humans can do that machines cannot.”

Which leaves me still convinced that there are critical issues we must consider in order to simultaneously utilize the many strengths that machines and automation bring to work while also keeping the human beings who work for us fully engaged and bringing the best they have to offer.

 I believe there are 3 questions that organizations of all types and society at large must consider regarding the fragile and dynamic relationship between people and technology at work:

 1.     What is it that human beings can uniquely do?

2.     What role does work play in the overall health of society?

3.     How can machines reinforce what humans do best?

 There’s no doubt that we’ll work with technology in the future. But what are the implications of that technology on how we work and how we live? What we need right now are leaders who have the courage to ask, over and over, the essential questions that shape our workplaces. In Bravespace workplaces of tomorrow people won’t simply be replaced with machines; instead robots, AI, and technology will be leveraged to activate the best possible decision-making and partnerships of the people who work in them. And as Scheiber points out, creating work which requires humans to act more and more like the machines with whom they work is questionable, at best.  Human beings bring creativity, discretion and judgment to their work effort—which machines cannot, at present, provide.  Humans also are capable of connection, emotional intelligence, and innovation, which allows us to more humanly respond to situations that are dynamic and nuanced. 

 Technology, (AI, Robots, and Machines), is a critical part of how we will work tomorrow for efficiency and quality. But all leaders, at every level, must also rigorously and strategically consider the unique and on-going role of the human beings in their work force, and design their workplaces accordingly.

 People need to work, and machines can help is bring forward our best. Copying machines, in my book, is not the highest and best use of our unique human potential.

Jim Morris