People vs. technology: why do we still hire humans?

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Chloe Lovatt

September 30, 2016

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Over the past few years, automation and machine learning have developed at a rapid rate. Apps such as Uber and “digital assistants” like Siri and Alexa are already transforming the way we do everyday tasks. Innovation is changing businesses too, and this is only set to continue with disruptive technologies such as Big Data, Artificial Intelligence and the Internet of Things. It is predicted that 6% of US jobs will be lost to robots and automation by 2021, with the main losses being felt in transportation, logistics, customer services, banking, retail, and healthcare. With similar trends predicted in the UK, what role can humans continue to play in an increasingly automated workplace?

At present, machine learning remains limited and flawed. It is therefore important for businesses to understand when automation is, and isn’t, appropriate. Machines that make high-risk decisions still require humans to approve them, as we currently can’t trust machines to make life-or-death or important financial decisions by themselves. As such, new tools need to be applied in the right way and their limits understood. Smart people with skills and experience will play an important role in a world of new and improving technologies.

An estimated 35% of UK jobs are at high risk of automation in the next 10-20 years, while in the past 15 years technology has already contributed to the loss of over 800,000 jobs. However, that same technology has created 3.5 million new jobs that are more highly paid than the ones lost. This suggests that technology will likely lead to a shift in employment patterns from low- to high-skilled work, rather than the elimination of the human workforce altogether.

As job requirements are changing, education will need to change to provide the workforce needed to cope with new technologies and to help existing workers adapt. People will need to be able to use technology effectively but also develop skills that cannot be automated. The traits that are perhaps most valued by employers now are digital knowledge and skills, creativity, leadership, entrepreneurship, and complex problem solving. People with these skill sets are still incredibly valuable to businesses and are more likely to benefit from working with technology than be replaced by it.

Integrating machine learning with the work done by these skilled people can make their jobs easier and increase efficiency. Technology has the potential to fully automate menial tasks, administration or manufacturing processes, but for other kinds of work the combination of human and machine intelligence can raise both productivity and quality. New technology can help to connect these people and facilitate better communication and coordination, allowing them greater control and providing better information needed to do their jobs.

Ultimately, no amount of technology can currently replace a large number of roles filled by people. Humans are still key in making big decisions, thinking creatively, and providing unique insights. Machines and automation can be great tools but they still require human input, at least for now. If anything, automation is likely to enhance skilled jobs and create more of them.

Read next: Orchestrating humans and technology is the future of work

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