The Competitive Advantage of Humans over Smart Machines

Posted by Emily Mundzic

Here’s why I’m not worried about a robot replacing me:


The competitive advantage of humans over smart machines

Economist, John Maynard Keynes predicted the plight of 'technological unemployment' way back in 1963 in his Essays in Persuasion. Recently, I have also been speculating economic possibilities, not for my grandchildren like Keynes, but of my future in the workplace.

Keynes sensed a widespread and collective suffering, ‘not from the rheumatics of old age.' But ‘from the growing pains of over-rapid changes, from the painfulness of readjustment between one economic period and another.' It wasn’t so long ago that my mum used a typewriter in the Public Service and I still remember the psychedelic apple logo of our early Macintosh. The landscape of work has rapidly changed from industrialisation to mechanisation and now, to digitisation and ‘smart’ systems, which means the nature of work, will once again change.

Workplace change in the face of automation is increasingly discussed in the media. Academic and author, Tim Dunlop, in his book, ‘Why the future is workless’ proposes a dystopian world of mass unemployment with wealth held in the hands of the minority. But there is a contrasting argument to this debate, one that champions the value of ‘brand human’ over automation or what I call the ‘competitive advantage’ of humans. After all, we created these eliminating technologies in the first place. Still, lest we become a kind of technological Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, unable to transcend our creation, humans must remain at the competitive forefront through education and innovation, complementing cutting-edge technology to confront the world’s complex problems.


So, how is automation different this time around?

MIT scholars Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee deem ‘there has never been a worse time to be a worker with only ‘ordinary’ skills and abilities to offer because digital technologies are acquiring these at an extraordinary rate.’ Automation is no longer confined to routine manufacturing tasks with ‘machine learning’ enabling technology to reason and even make life or death decisions.  On the brighter side, as digital technologies replace some types of labour, simultaneously there has been the emergence of new tasks. Technological progress has not made human labour obsolete! Instead shifted it, creating new job titles.

The number of jobs lost to more efficient machines is only part of the problem. More pressing is that ‘smart machines’ may prevent the economy from creating enough of these ‘new jobs.' It’s fair to say that past behaviour may not be a reliable predictor of future outcomes. Jobs losses are occurring right now, and there will be losers in the process…it’s an outlook that conjures up the notion of jobs eliminated in a methodological way similar to how the Terminator dealt with the Sarah Connors. Pretty bleak.


A future complemented by robots  

The Economist’s article ‘Automation and anxiety’ use the example of Enlitic, a machine that can classify brain tumors with more accuracy than physicians threatening even white-collar workers. Nonetheless, Radiologist, Dr. Barani does not fear losing his job saying that if anything, this technology empowers practitioners, ‘making average ones into experts.' Some argue that machines substituting humans to perform a routine or meticulous task gives us the opportunity to use our uniquely human abilities of problem-solving, adaptability and creativity. A successful example was when ATMs were introduced in the 1970s. No longer mere checkout clerks, employees became salespersons involved in conferring additional services like credit cards and loans and the identity of the ‘the bank’ was transformed to provide ‘relationship banking.'

Still, we cannot shy away from the stark reality of job market projections. Humans can only maintain a competitive edge (even with the advent of artificial intelligence) if there is an investment in nurturing the skills and capabilities to be complemented rather than substituted by technological change. This is why degrees like the Bachelor of Creative Intelligence and Innovation are needed to build a nation of innovators, entrepreneurs and graduates who are simply better equipped to face the turbulence of a future workplace. For it is the human abilities that are honed in the BCII that machines cannot replicate that embody the competitive advantage of humans.


Cover photo by Alex Knight on Unsplash.

The Economist ‘Automation and anxiety

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