How to Secure Your Job Amidst Robots and AI

An Artificial Intelligence (AI) board.  Photo courtesy:

An Artificial Intelligence (AI) board.

Photo courtesy:

Automation’s ability to increase productivity comes at a human cost: unemployment. For, if not as many people are needed to meet business demand, what happens to their jobs? They simply go away. The scale and speed at which technology evolves means that this is a problem that everyone will likely confront at some point in their career. What, then, can you do to protect your career from the encroachment of (artificially) intelligent machines? I have a few ideas…

In almost every field today, fewer workers are needed because of digital tools that are available to both workers and customers. Take banking, for instance. Between the rise of online banking and the ubiquity of 24/7 Automated Teller Machines (ATMs), the number of human tellers needed today is a fraction of what it was a decade ago. The same is true for mechanized farming, automobile assembly, manufacturing, and so on. This trend will continue because it is human nature to find better ways of doing things. And it is hard to argue against the use of machines, because, compared with humans, machines are faster, safer, cheaper, and produce a more consistent quality.

The average worker today is thus not only competing with other workers for their job but also with computers that want to take over. How can one win? The answer lies not in fighting the trend but in using it to your advantage. Like we said last week: You want the computer to do what it can, so you can do what only you can. To keep bots and AI away from your job, do the following:

1.       Create time for Higher-Order Thinking (HOT)

What is Higher-Order Thinking? This definition from Wikipedia suffices for our discussion:

Higher-order thinking involves the learning of complex judgmental skills such as critical thinking and problem solving. Higher-order thinking is more difficult to learn or teach but also more valuable because such skills are more likely to be usable in novel situations (i.e., situations other than those in which the skill was learned).

I like that last part about using problem solving in novel situations because humans are uniquely wired to pull learning from other parts of their lives and apply it in new situations in ways computers cannot easily do. HOT drives individuals, organizations, and societies forward. The more of your day is spent engaging in HOT, the less threat automation poses to your job. How to create time for HOT? Automate your work. Not every human activity can be automated, but a significant part of most tasks can. The key is to put as much work on autopilot as possible so that time is freed up to do higher-order thinking.

2.       Lead others

What should we be doing? This is a strategy question every team asks. And it is one an algorithm cannot help with, for to answer this requires human judgment that cannot be rendered in 0s and 1s. To chart the course, to strategize, to think: this is the province of homo sapiens, not robots. No matter how technologically advanced we become, organizations will always be looking for those who can lead, who can see things before they happen. Find opportunities to lead and you will often be in situations where you must create and innovate. Leaders will always be needed and a computer cannot lead. Computers – even the most advanced of them – do what they are told and no more; humans, however dazzle even themselves.

3.       Make decisions that are fair

Let’s take a very quick look at how machines become “intelligent.” Machines are trained in much the same way as, say, dogs. If you are training a dog to sit anytime you say “sit,” you give her a treat for compliance so she wants to do it again, because her goal is to get as many treats as possible. A software is trained the same way. It starts with giving it a goal. The goal is usually to achieve positive infinity, i.e., to have as high of a score as possible. What happens, then, is that the software will perform actions that increase its score and move away from actions that decrease its score. That is how Artificial Intelligence (AI) basically works. That is why software becomes better the more it is used, because it keeps remembering what works and what doesn’t, all in a bid to reach the goal programmed into it.  All machines have to be told what good looks like, and they have to be told what is correct and what is not. Once told, they carry out their instructions to perfection.

Thus, it is not hard to see why AI cannot always make fair decisions, because bias can be (unconsciously) coded into its working. So, if you are training a machine to make hiring decisions based on historical data of those who have been successful in a highly coveted leadership position, it is very likely that a female or a minority will not be picked because, historically, the good jobs have been for only white men. This AI recruiter will thus likely look over very capable people for the position. To make decisions that are fair, representative, and inclusive, therefore, HOT thinking is needed, and those who are proficient in this will always have a job. When making decisions, small or large, look to history but also factor in universal values such as empathy and equity. This differentiates you from a mindless bot.

4.       Excel at what you do

You may not be an official leader in charge of strategy or hiring decisions, but you can still keep the automatons at bay by doing very well, whatever your hands find to do. Raising your own bar of service, striving to be the best you, and enlisting technology to help you in any way it can will make you always be in demand and safeguard your career against the onslaught of IT-induced job loss. Raise the bar to a new level that computers can’t reach by adding creativity, personality, other strengths you have.

The more of your humanity you bring to bear, the more irreplaceable you become—a sure way to secure your job.

The more of your humanity you bring to bear, the more irreplaceable you become—a sure way to secure your job.

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There is no reason to fear for your job because of technology. Computers cannot mimic all of the contributions you are capable of like solving big-picture problems such as building companies, creating fair systems, and making gut-level decisions. Also, the more excellent you become at work, the less a computer can match your skills. There is always more market for talent than talent for market, so keep honing your talents. The more of your humanity you bring to bear, the more irreplaceable you become—a sure way to secure your job.