Watch Out for Digital Assistants

In the late 1930s there was, especially in the US, a growing number of, mainly female, employees hired to do calculations. This was a time when typewriting was an important task in offices and typists were often organized in typing pools. Similarly, the new employees with their calculation machines were organized in computing pools.

They were hired to perform large calculations in banks, insurance companies, and research institutes. They were often referred to as “computers”. When the electronic computing machines were invented in the 1940s they too began to be called “computers” and to avoid confusion one started to speak of the employees as “human computers”. It did not take long until they were replaced by the new machines.

There are many such examples from the 20th century of how machines replace human beings, but the most dramatic one is perhaps the replacement of horses in farming and in transport. In just a few decades tractors and automobiles took over the tasks of horses.

A few years ago a research report claimed that 50% of the tasks today performed by humans could be taken over by digital technology in the next 20 years. Robots of all kinds, including self-steering automobiles, buses and lorries, and intelligent software would make many of us unemployed, not just drivers, elderly workers, and pizza delivery guys, but also journalists, lawyers, and even fashion models and pop singers.

Even if this claim has been revised in the debate that followed, it certainly is true that in this century we will see many examples of how digital systems and robots take over human work tasks. Let us look a bit closer at one example.

Americans are very happy with their new home assistant, Amazon Alexa. You come home and find the house empty. So, you say “Alexa” and there she is, answering “Hey Bo, how are you today?”. You can ask her where everyone is, you can discuss dinner plans with her, she will make your phone calls, and of course she will assist you in all your shopping. With Alexa in your house you never have to be alone anymore. You have your own butler always on your beck and call.

Now, Alexa and the other digital assistants, Google assistant, Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana, are just early prototypes of what we will have in a decade or two. So, one may very well wonder about the role of these digital assistants in the work place. Will they replace the human assistants still around to serve managers and doctors, for example?

Yes, eventually those occupations will disappear and their work tasks will be taken over by digital technology. But it will take much, much longer than many seem to think and it will be a complex process.

When automobiles replaced horses, coachmen stayed on as chauffeurs. When machines replaced many of the craftsmen of an older society, those craftsmen often moved into more advanced positions. Normally, when technology takes over a task, humans stay on to organize and oversee operations.

The more well defined a work task is, the easier it is to replace the human with technology. If doctor’s assistants do nothing but transferring the doctor’s spoken words into hospital records, then they are like the secretaries that used to type letters before email. They will soon disappear.

When human beings insist on only performing certain well defined tasks they invite technology to replace them. The characteristics of good human assistants are exactly the opposite. They can be asked to do anything and, furthermore, they are constantly on the lookout for new things to do. In a society that is rapidly changing because of new technology they are excited by change and they use change to find new opportunities to be useful. I am pretty sure there will be doctor’s assistants around for a long time yet.

The use of digital technology brings major changes and they have only just begun. Working life will change, occupations will change, but more important than that is a major change in the way we think about business, work and society itself.

The industrial revolution changed poor societies with small-scale craft into rich societies with large-scale production systems we call factories. The new societies depended on their systems and their system builders, the engineers. The systems were closed, difficult to change, and demanded constant attention.

The digital revolution introduces open platforms rather than systems. Internet is a platform, open for everyone, a global market place for exchange of ideas, for commerce and communication. The major digital companies, Apple, Google, Amazon and Facebook, are platform companies. They provide their customers with platforms for networking. Facebook just supplies the platform, the customers provide all the content. YouTube has turned us into prosumers – both producing and consuming film.

Companies that begin to use digital platforms can quickly threaten companies that are stuck in the old production systems. Companies that want to survive must develop platforms to delegate processes to suppliers and customers, encourage third-party developers, and network with competitors to provide better services to their customers.

Platforms are about communication rather than production. Engineers are good at systems, but now we need people with communicative skills, people who are not afraid to look outside the factory. Many companies and their managers will find it difficult to make the transition from systems to platforms. They need help.

Rather than worrying about if digital technology will make us unemployed, we should take every opportunity to learn about the new technology, what it means, how it can be used. If we develop our communicative skills, learn to think platform rather than system, try to look outside the factory, enjoy all the new technology, join the digital revolution, we can be sure to play a part in building a new society, a new company, and have a very exciting future.

Bo Dahlbom