Malcolm Frank, Paul Roehrig and Ben Pring, thought leaders at Cognizant are back with a follow up to their last book, Code Halos. The title of the new book is gloomy but the book (they sent me a review copy) is very optimistic and highly readable.
As they say up front about likely impact of automation
“Will the new machines displace many current workers? Yes. However, on a larger scale, new machines will also create work that is better, more productive, more satisfying than ever before. The new machines will raise living standards and usher in a period of widely distributed economic growth that will be far stronger than any we’ve seen in the Western world during the past 50 years.”
It took me several pages in my recent book Silicon Collar to dispel the fears studies from Oxford U, Gartner and others have created about catastrophic job losses from automation. Frank and Co crisply do so with a “you have to be frigging kidding me!” section
“Of course, some jobs will be automated away, but 173 million G7 jobs by 2025? We don’t think so. 173 million is such a large number it does not pass the smell test, for that’s larger than the entire population of Russia, or the combined workforces of Germany, the UK, France, Italy, Australia, and Canada.”
They also bring out two important truisms about automation
a) Automation targets tasks, not complete jobs so it transforms jobs not eliminates them. (in my book I identified several 3D tasks – dull, dirty, dangerous – that automation has targeted. I also showcase examples of many grocery, banking, postal and many other jobs which persist decades after UPC scanners, ATM machines, kiosks and other automation targeted them)
b) we always seem to underestimate the “job gains”, many of which come from humble technology innovations. They use the example of the lawn mower without which today’s massive sports industry would not exist
“To be sure, sports existed well before the lawn mower: Jane Austen was writing about baseball in 1797. But there was no “sports industry” as such. Clearing spaces to play cricket with a scythe was difficult, and thus they were few and far between; early types of footballs were kicked around on mainly muddy thoroughfares.”
The book is about more than automation - covers ground around digital transformation opportunities. In that sense the authors continue their tone from Code Halos. They nicely bring out the 3Ms - materials, machines and models -and their changing role across human progress in the last few centuries.
If I have one nit with the book - it focuses mainly on artificial intelligence (in its many manifestations) and white collar jobs. Automation in agriculture, the battlefield, logistics, oil and gas, manufacturing and many other sectors involve robotics, autonomous vehicles, wearables, 3D printing and other technologies. That’s certainly understandable. Cognizant is heavily focused on white collar industries like financial services.
If anything, that only reinforces how much further we have to go before systems integrators emerge who can blend a wide range of automation technologies to target finger dexterity, climbing capability, visual acuity, social grace, cognitive skills and so many other things the human mind and body are capable of but machines still struggle with.
Overall, an easy and pragmatic read - an important antidote to all the alarmist studies and books in the last few years on the topic of automation and the future of work.