Replacing the 3 Rs with the 3 As
The Importance of Human Advantages, Automation and AI to the Future of Work
Concern about the impact of technology – like robots and artificial intelligence (AI) – is nothing new, tracing back several centuries when machines for harvesting grain, the cotton gin and the steam engine, spawned the industrial revolution. However, jobs have evolved with the times, as technology has enabled us to work smarter while enhancing productivity, driving efficiency and hastening the growth of business.
Now in the age of COVID, businesses are running at warp speed to try to stay viable. They’ve been forced to “turn on a dime” and leverage technology to transform their models overnight as a result of the global pandemic. Innovations like AI and robotics are at the heart of the flexibility and agility businesses need to adapt and survive, causing a rise in technophobia as millions of Americans are suffering under the weight of unemployment.
How can today’s workers ensure they are not left behind, and adapt equally as fast to the changing workplace demands? Fundamental changes to the way we are educated – even from childhood – are required to ensure our future workforce is fully prepared to evolve and provide value in the workplace that technology cannot: the analytical thinking and creativity that has fueled centuries of technological innovation.
The Delicate Dance Between Productivity and Employment
There’s no denying that technology has replaced humans in some sectors of the economy. Overall, more than 25% of jobs in the U.S. are experiencing disruption due to automation, according to the Brookings Institution. Workers are worried. More than one-third say they fear losing their job as a result, a PricewaterhouseCoopers report noted.
However, when you look at the jobs technology is replacing, many entail manual, repetitive, and potentially dangerous work. For example, EverestLabs is using AI and robotics to reimagine recycling. Currently, at recycling centers around the country, more than 300,000 employees perform the task of standing for hours, sorting through dirty glass, plastic, and paper, risking injuries and exposing themselves to disease and harsh environments. Also, recycling centers still struggle to find enough employees to handle the growing volume of recycling. EverestLabs relies on computer vision and robotics to pick recyclables from conveyor belts, helping these businesses address worker shortages, improve efficiency and deliver quality products for reuse.
It’s not just traditional blue-collar jobs that feel the effect of technology. Even white-collar professions – in the medical field or marketing – now rely on automation and robotics for tasks that used to be in the human purview. Consider the impact that robotic-assisted surgery has had on access to healthcare. Products like the da Vinci Surgical System, which was introduced by Intuitive Surgical Inc. 20 years ago, opened the doors for use of AI and robots to support surgeons with everything from total knee replacement and dental implants to the most delicate microsurgery. These solutions have not replaced the surgeons who bring the medical expertise but are allowing these doctors to improve more lives and treat patients that otherwise do not have the resources to travel to get this specialty care.
Both employees and employers do see the potential of technology. One survey showed that 70% of workers believe automation will give them an opportunity to qualify for higher-skilled jobs. And more than half of employers view automation as a way to augment workers’ performance and productivity, not replace them altogether. But it will take re-skilling, re-training and a new approach to make sure even the youngest workers are prepared for the types of jobs spawned by innovation that may not yet exist.
Education Reform to Prepare the Workforce of Tomorrow
Technology is not going away. Virtually no sector will go untouched by the advances in AI and automation – whether it’s healthcare, finance, or even waste management. It is up to us to ensure our current workers, and those entering the workforce in the future, are employable.
At the heart of these changes is our educational system. For far too long education has been focused on the 3 Rs – reading, writing and ‘rithmetic – encouraging rote learning and attaining basic knowledge. While this approach is changing, it does not yet go far enough to ensure individuals are adequately prepared.
Rather than feeding students with knowledge that exists and is easily discoverable – through trusted online resources and textbooks – our education system must find a way to foster intellectual curiosity and encourage students to think about new ways to approach problems, do research and answer questions. By creating such a discovery path, I believe students will attain the new knowledge they need while encouraging them to look at problems from different angles and be inspired by their own creativity.
The Roadmap for the Future: A Focus on the 3 As
Instead of the 3 Rs, we should now be focusing on the 3 As:
- Advantages of humans – People have analytical capabilities that are not possible to recreate with AI or machine learning. We can take past knowledge and experience and process it in ways that computers cannot, giving us distinct advantages and unique roles in any workplace. We need to continue to understand and develop these advantages.
- Automating mundane work – Robotics and other technologies are helping address shortages of workers in certain sectors and ensuring that those still on the front lines, like in manufacturing facilities and recycling plants, have a safer, efficient and more productive workplace.
- Artificial intelligence – AI is a critical tool for knowledge-based learning, as it can repeat what it learns in a quick and scalable way. AI’s role is to complement and enhance what humans can do, making them more productive in the workforce.
Admittedly in this new reality of the 3As, some types of jobs will be lost. But, coexistence is possible. Much like the industrial revolutions of the past two centuries, there is great potential for applications of new technologies to create jobs previously undiscovered and build a path for personal advancement. The key to navigating these changes will be ensuring that our workforce is equipped with intellectual curiosity and practical skills they need to succeed.
Ben started his career as a System Architect working on advanced networking and wireless technologies at 3Com. Ben joined Sierra Ventures in 2000 and focuses on Emerging Technologies. Some of Ben’s prior investments include AutheTec (IPO; M&A – Apple $365M) and Invensense (IPO; M&A – TDK $1.3B). Ben holds a BE from University of Western Australia and MA and PhD degrees from Princeton University in Electrical Engineering. When he’s not working you can usually find him on the golf course.