By Peter Weddle, Author Circa 2118: What Humans Will Do When Machines Take Over
In 2012, some of the world’s leading research scientists, academicians and futurists were asked to predict the date for the technological singularity – that point in time when machines will become smarter than humans. These individuals weren’t hype-masters or over-caffeinated Silicon Valley salespeople, but credible experts who understood both the capabilities and the shortcomings of the technology. What was their response? They predicted we would reach this milestone in just two decades, in 2040.
When the technological singularity arrives, we humans will have removed the friction of our own limited intelligence from scientific development, and artificial intelligence will establish an entirely new reality for society at large and, most especially, for working men and women. Unlike the invention of the printing press or electricity or even nuclear energy, brilliant machines will dramatically reduce the number of jobs available to humans. Ray Kurzweil, winner of the National Medal of Technology, describes it as “technological change so rapid and profound, it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history.”
That rupture is already beginning to affect the careers of HR professionals.
• For those working in the HR Department of an industrial company, the Boston Consulting Group predicts that 25 percent of all industrial tasks will be performed by robots by 2025.
• For those working in a professional services firm, PwC predicts that 38 percent of all jobs could be automated barely more than five years after that, or by the early 2030s.
These reductions-in-(human) force will shrink the number of clients that HR serves within the enterprise and, as a consequence, diminish the role of the HR Department itself. There will simply be less of a need for benefits administration, compliance oversight, workforce management and labor relations.
The following twenty years will see the disruption accelerate and spread. Ever more knowledgeable, empathetic, durable and agile machines – a genus best described as super capable or super-C machines – will replace human workers by the tens of thousands and then by the millions. Indeed, the New York Federal Reserve estimates that almost half of all blue and white-collar jobs – 47 percent – will be at risk of automation. Byte-collar workers will be the “intelligent capital” in this new reality, and old fashioned “human capital” will increasingly be seen as substandard and unnecessary.
In the longer term, the situation will grow even more dire. Within one hundred years or circa 2118, smart machine technology will transform the graph of employment in the American workplace. It will create the quintessential organization machine – the 22nd century analog of the 1950’s organization man – and displace human workers throughout the private sector, in both for-profit and not-for-profit organizations. People will go from being coveted and acquired as “talent” to being dismissed and discarded as irrelevant.
The net result will be near universal unemployment, a crisis of historic proportions. Ironically, this situation will also create an equally historic opportunity for HR professionals. Of all the cohorts in the workforce, they are best positioned to lead the effort to address the disruption. A new term will join the business lexicon of “downsizing” and “rightsizing” as HR professionals perform “finalsizing,” —eliminating jobs and their incumbents altogether—a strategy only they will have the qualifications and compassion to execute. It will take courage and determination to do so, but by embracing the challenge, they will finally get that “seat at the table” and take on the leadership role to which they have long aspired.
HR’s new role circa 2118 will require that it adopt a number of different priorities and behaviors. As traditional HR functions become less important to enterprise success, HR professionals will have to help all levels of management understand and manage the human impact of machine hegemony in the workplace. They will have to establish programs for developing those humans who remain on-the-job so they have the skills to work with and ultimately for super-C machines. And, they will need to devise, budget for and execute plans to prepare workers for the disruption that will hit their careers, their occupations and their ability to recover in a shrinking human workplace.
To perform this role, HR professionals must first achieve and then maintain situational awareness. This perspective doesn’t require HR professionals to become systems engineers or data scientists. Rather, building situational awareness is the process of proactively searching out, analyzing and adapting as necessary to the impacts that artificial intelligence is having on the world around us. HR professionals have to figure out, based on the best available information, how work and the workplace are being affected, in the present, the near-to-mid-term, and in the years beyond that.
Admittedly, this additional mission will require HR professionals to tap a broader range of sources and points of view than those upon which they have traditionally relied for career development. It will also require that they immerse themselves in communities and educational experiences that may be uncomfortable or even intimidating, at least at first. They will have to learn a new vocabulary, wrestle with unfamiliar and esoteric concepts, and confront ideas and their consequences that seemed unimaginable just a few years ago.
The goal isn’t to predict the future, but instead, for HR professionals to acquire the capacity to machine proof their own careers and those of the workers they serve as technology evolves. The disruption will be difficult enough to manage without it happening as a bolt-out-of-the-blue. Building situational awareness, therefore, is an exercise in going back to the future. It draws on the traditional values of HR professionals to optimize – as much as is possible – each individual’s wellbeing in the present and their prospects for the future. Human work won’t end circa 2118, but it will be transformed, and HR professionals will lead the redirection.
Peter Weddle is the CEO of TAtech: The Association for Talent Acquisition Solutions and the author of Circa 2118: What Humans Will Do When Machines Take Over (September, 2018). Get it at Amazon.