Confession of a Closet Luddite
Last week’s business trip has made me think again about the human consequences of automation – perhaps appropriate, as one talking point of the meeting I was attending was this prediction:
“60% of all human tasks will be automated by the year 2025.”
It all started with a new version of a hotel app that enables me to check in and get a virtual key sent to my phone that I then use to unlock my hotel room door. Great, I thought, no need to go anywhere near the hotel desk. When I walked into the hotel lobby, a young woman stationed at the door greeted me and asked if was checking in. No, I said, I’ve already done that using your app, thanks. I’ll just go ahead to my room.
The receptionist seemed taken aback. She paused, smiled hesitantly, and encouraged use of the app. But her smile looked pasted on. Behind her eyes, I could see uncertainty. I’m pretty sure she could see her job going the way of jobs at companies like GM, who recently announced that it is laying off 15% of its blue and white collar workforce to refocus its business on self-driving cars.
This encounter made me think hard about who benefits from automation and who does not.
Let’s take the entire trip as an example. I reserved plane and hotel for this trip on my phone using SAP’s Concur app. As I left my house, I stopped at the gas station, which unfortunately did not automatically gas up my car, but at least I could pay at the pump. At the airport, TSA pre-check enabled me to skip the check-in process and go straight to the gate. Before getting on the plane, I bought a bottle of water at a self-serve convenience store.
At my destination, the Lyft app found me a driver to get to the meeting. At the hotel, the hotel app automatically checked me in, gave me a room number, and a virtual key. Checkout was via the same app. I ordered and paid for dinner at the airport restaurant using a tablet bolted to my table. Expensing the trip when I got home was a simple matter of using the Concur app to combine company-paid reservations and receipt photos into an expense report that was approved automatically by ruleset processing within an hour of my submitting it.
All good, especially if you are the company providing the automation or the customer benefiting from it.
What if you are one of the people I didn’t talk to in the course of this trip?
I had no phone conversation with the nice ladies at the travel service to find the best flight or hotel room. I didn’t see anyone at the gas station at the crack of dawn to chat about the weather. No human interaction at the airport at all except with the TSA and gate agent. No retail clerk to say good morning to. No hotel desk staff to tell me the best place to eat dinner (oops, I forgot about using Trip Advisor and Yelp). No wait staff at the restaurant to chat about the miseries of travel.
To state the obvious: People who provide these services are losing their jobs. What’s more, we have gotten used to this state of affairs. Unless you live in New Jersey, you probably can’t remember having actual gas station attendants pump your gas. Travel agents had their businesses disrupted years ago by online travel services, so the decline in that occupation is also kind of history. Ditto taxi dispatchers, when software matches up drivers and destinations (sorry, Danny DeVito). Self-service checkout in convenience, grocery, and other stores disappears a whole class of retail jobs. Hospitality jobs can be replaced by hotel apps. Manufacturing jobs can be replaced by robotic process automation. And so it goes until we get to the predicted 60% of all tasks.
While I’m all in favor of automating dangerous jobs (think drilling and mining) and jobs that actually damage employees, I’m increasingly concerned about the social consequences of large scale automation. Which brings me to the Luddites.
For those of you not up on British history, Luddites were English textile workers who, in the early 19th century, protested the automation of textile mills by destroying mill equipment in a series of attacks that were put down by the British Army. These skilled weavers saw their role in the textile industry being replaced by automated looms that could be operated by cheaper and lower skilled workers. Contrary to popular belief, they were motivated more by a concern for fair labor practices than by a hatred of equipment. They wanted more work and better wages. Per Kevin Binfield, editor of the collection Writings of the Luddites, “They just wanted machines that made high-quality goods, and they wanted these machines to be run by workers who had gone through an apprenticeship and got paid decent wages.”
Why would I identify with a bunch of 19th century protesters? Because I think they had a point. The human and societal consequences of automation are a problem that we increasingly push aside in our pursuit of Industry 4.0 and related digital transformation initiatives. We need to ask ourselves if the cost savings and productivity benefits of automation are worth the social impact of displacing workers in more and more fields of business, leaving a polarized employment landscape of very high and very low skilled jobs.
The impact on those who keep their jobs is also ignored. The more human tasks that are automated, the less contact between individuals, and the easier it is for each member of society to live in a bubble that is unaffected by inconvenient human interactions. The isolation this engenders cannot possibly be good.
I got to my meeting last week without having to take time to talk to, and listen to, a number of people who used to be a regular part of my life. While that made for a fast and convenient trip, I’m not sure the couple of hours I saved, and the profit margins achieved by replacing people with apps, are worth the social cost.