The AI Augmented Workforce

Recently there has been a lot of discussion, and debate, around the “rise of the machines” and how AI, robots and the rest are going to take many our jobs. Since I wrote a book on this topic I obviously believe that this is true.

One line of discussion that has emerged within this larger debate is the concept of “worker augmentation”. In other words, sure AI will take many of our jobs, but it will also work as our “partner” or “uber assistant” and help us perform at a much higher level. This is a growing area of thought leadership and articles can be found frequently in leading publications such as Harvard Business Review, Fortune, Forbes Tech and others. Most recently H. James Wilson and Cyrille Bateller wrote an article in Harvard Business Review titled “How People will use AI to do their jobs better”.

Now I might be missing something but my take on the history of technology is that this “augmentation” or “worker/technology partnership” has been going on since the beginning of the industrial age. Seamstresses became more efficient when their work was “augmented” with sewing machines, farmers became more efficient when they “partnered” with farm equipment and so forth and so on. I don’t see this as a new phenomenon at all. In fact, I think that it misses the point of how significant cognitive computing is because it assumes that machines will always somehow be our assistants, instead of the other way around.

I was thinking about this just the other day when I found myself standing in the “self-checkout” line at my local grocery store. My great grandfather owned and ran a grocery store in a small town not really that long ago actually. Back in his day everything from inventory to checkout was done by hand. He didn’t have the opportunity to have his work “augmented” my technology. Then came along his new business partner the almighty, and at the time awe inspiring, calculator. No longer did he need to do the pesky math equations in his head or on a piece of paper. Now he could just look at the price of each item, manually input them into his technology “partner” and then hit “total”. Technology kept advancing and it wasn’t much longer after the calculator that we have the introduction of the scanner. This new technology took much of thinking out of the checkout process. Now all clerks had to do was make sure that the item was properly “scanned”. No longer were they burdened with memorizing the price of items or even making sure that the price was properly inputted into the machine.

Here is where it gets interesting because with the scanner the only thing the clerk had to know how to do was properly move the item over the machine to capture the price (and then bag the item). So in a very real sense it can actually be said that by this point the checkout clerk (human) was really “augmenting” the work of the machine and not the other way around. The machine was doing all of the thinking and the human was doing the physical actions that the software could not do. In our society and culture the highest “value” is typically exemplified by the input in the process that requires the most “thinking” and “knowledge”. Brains versus brawn, right? It is the reason that doctors make much more than gardeners. So in this "partnership" the machine is the alpha partner, right?

Now of course we as consumers have become the checkout clerks and we are “augmenting” the technology by scanning and bagging our groceries. As I wrote in my book, theoretically robot arms can already perform the physical tasks but since we as consumers provide free labor it is not a technology problem but a decision based on cost. In industry after industry humans are keeping their jobs because they are less expensive then machines. And in industry after industry the “partnership” between machines and humans is one where the machines are the brains and we the humans are the brawn.

So since WWII grocery stores have gone from no automation to almost complete automation. And at every step along the way it can be said that humans and machines “partnered” with each other.

My prediction is that within 5 years a major grocery chain will completely automate its in store activities including the stocking of shelves, the answering customer questions and yes checking us out. If my prediction turns out to be wrong it will not be because the technology isn’t there but because the businesses themselves have made a conscious decision to keep humans involved because it is the right thing to do. But businesses will only do this if we as consumers are willing to put up with the inefficiencies and mistakes that are unique to humans. I can’t imagine how slow my great grandfather must have been checking out his customers, or how frequently he got an items price wrong, or how often he gave incorrect change.

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