Welcome to episode 191 of The Digital Life, a show about our insights into the future of design and technology. I’m your host, Jon Follett, and with me is founder and co-host, Dirk Knemeyer.
On this episode of The Digital Life, we’re going to discuss automation and robotics, artificial intelligence, and machine learning. The McKinsey Institute just released a new study on the topic and it had some interesting insights. I always enjoy checking McKinsey research. They’re particularly good at identifying future trends and I thought this report, even though it was extremely long and I think it took them two years to put together, so you can imagine hundreds of pages of text coming out of it.
But it had some great insights into automation that I thought we could dig into today, Dirk.
I mentioned in the intro there that robotics, artificial intelligence, and machine learning are all rapidly advancing. We’ve seen the videos of the robots that seem almost human. I mean, to the point where you have empathy for them. Artificial intelligence, of course, is powering things like chatbots and machine learning, of course, is powering a lot of our software and the IoT. We’ve got these technologies coming together and the overarching architecture for this comes under the moniker “automation,” but that means a lot of different things in a lot of different industries. McKinsey took a broad look at it and some of the conclusions they came up with are economic based conclusions, but there’s also a lot of technology questions to answer there as well.
One of the interesting economic conclusions that they came to was that we’re very worried about jobs going away for human beings. All of a sudden, this AI powered robot is going to be handling all of the blue collar jobs in the factory, and then there’s going to be this whole slew of people who are out of work, but actually, because in a lot of Western nations so much of the population is aging out of work and there’s just not as many folks coming up who are going to be working age, there’s actually going to be a labor shortage in many nations. I think the United States is not quite in as bad as shape as parts of Europe, but essentially you’re talking about a labor shortage so if we’re automating systems at least in certain parts of the West, you’re basically just going to be making up for a lack of human beings who are working age, over the course of the next few decades.
That was one of the McKinsey conclusions and it’s not something you hear in this debate over job loss a lot, because you’re essentially presenting it as man versus machine, when it very well could be man and machine working together, and then the question is, what level of jobs are available for humans and how many human beings are there in the first place?
Yeah, it’s certainly man and machine are already working together, and of course I use man in a gender neutral way. Have been working together for a long time. I mean, going back to the start of the Industrial Revolution, and the tools are just getting smarter, and at least into the foreseeable future, they will remain tools, and questions about the machines being their own sentient beings. We’re not there yet, they remain in the realm of tools, but look, the evolution from, for example, the typewriter to personal computer, was a massive tool upgrade, right? The result of that upgrade was the general elimination of the role of the secretary.
For a long time, it was judged that it didn’t make sense for a business person to learn the typewriter tool, this complex tool that automates the creation of business communication, so you would hire operators who are expert in that to operate the tool while the business people did something else. Well, as the personal computer came about, now the computer offered more than just word processing. Now it offered, it was a screen that gave you data on what’s happening with financials, it gave you different applications to use in a variety of ways, both from a productivity but also an entertainment standpoint that was a reason to bring most business people to learn how to type and learn how to engage with a user interface that made obsolete people who needed to be operators more or less just to use that tool.
It’s all about the evolution of tools, and the tools getting smarter and roles going away. When you think about the fact that there aren’t secretaries anymore for the most part, there’s some executive assistants and administrative assistants, but the notion that I’m going to get an office, I’m going to get a secretary, that’s long gone, and that’s a product of the rise of the personal computer and the tool making the change. The reason I’m harping on that example is that it’s going to be changes and tools that make roles disappear.
It’s not that we all disappear, it’s that there’s roles in the ecosystems in which we operate that are going to disappear, because tasks that were once done by the people will now be done increasingly by the tools, or also made easier by the tools, and so they’ll be adopted by other people in the system, other roles in the system, as the roles that were more dependent on or have now been replaced by those tools become irrelevant essentially.
Yeah, that’s an excellent point. I think it’s apparent that the way all of us work is going to change significantly over time, especially as things get automated. Another report finding from McKinsey was that almost every occupation had partial automation potential, so like some, maybe 30% of your role could be automated, whereas 70% couldn’t. If you think about it, if 30% of your time is now free to do the things that either are more strategic or are more helpful to the business and 30% of the things that maybe you don’t like doing very much because they’re rote are taken away, you can start to see how a number of positions are going to be changing and how the way we work is going to be changing.
As designers, I don’t know if we think about this quite as much as other occupations, but there are certainly aspects of design that are already being automated and they’re being done in limited ways and maybe the tools haven’t permeated the whole industry yet, but they’re there. There’s an example that I like which is an AI driven web layout service called … I think it’s called “The Grid.”
Right. Which sounds like something from Tron, but it’s actually real. The Grid takes all your content and figures out the best way to present it on the screen and how to update it and supposedly it’s pushbutton friendly, dumping your content and the layout takes care of itself.
Yeah. It’s certainly worth a try to see if that’s a service that we could benefit from, but you can sort of see, regardless of the veracity of that particular service, you can see how parts of the design process could very much be automated, leaving the designer to make the decisions about what content to put in there in the first place, perhaps, or what audiences to select for the target so it’s most effective, or some of the higher functioning tasks that come along with design. There are elements of the CEO’s job that can be automated, there are elements of the administrative assistant’s job that can be automated, so all of us are going to end up having this continuous change, continuous learning scenario which is frankly only just starting to come into our jobs right now.
As much as we talk about like, “Hey, we have to learn something new everyday,” I don’t think that while I’m maybe learning more and changing more than maybe my father did at his job, I don’t think I’m continuously changing and incorporating new technologies. I think the mandate for future work is going to be very much along the lines of continuous change and not, I mean, something that’s as comfortable as what we have right now. Your thoughts on that?
Well first, I mean, while you were talking, I went to Google and checked the top five reviews on The Grid and just scanned through. They’re all bad, they’re all bad. They all say, “Lots of promise but makes bad design decisions. My website is crummy, I don’t like it.” It ain’t their yet. Sorry, reframe your question for me again?
Yeah. I think we’re going to, the jobs of the future, and really starting now, I think there’s going to be a necessity for continuous learning and change in a way that at least I know can make me uncomfortable when I see new technologies, and maybe it’s me just getting older, but the idea of having to learn something new on a regular basis, everyday walking into the office, in order to be relevant, that’s a different kind of challenge I think.
Yeah, you know, newsflash, I think we’re already there.
I do, and here’s why I think so. The rise of the technologies that we’re using on a daily basis today, the business technologies have been moving in lockstep with consumer technologies, so we are learning the iPhone and the iPad and these different contexts for computing, these different apps around them in the context of our entire lives. It’s not at work in a course, so we don’t think of it that way, but the reality is I don’t even know what to make the demarcation point. I guess I’ll pick mobile, right? I mean, ever since the iPhone became the big hit and took mobile and ran away with mobile, we have been continuously learning in our use of technology, both from the hardware standpoint of going from the desktop computer metaphor, from the late 1970’s, that for almost 30 years ruled the roost, into a mobile, gestural, totally different UI paradigm that additionally is dovetailing into the late web 2.0, network connected apps, better user experiences and new software stacks.
We have been for more than a decade now, in this continuous learning process of shifting A to a new computer, B to computing moving from for most people, something at the periphery at their life to something at the center of their life. That’s all been a gigantic learning process, so the question is once there’s a divergence from personal behavior and professional behavior, once those things aren’t moving in lockstep as they have been for the last decade plus, then what does that look and feel like? Does it become difficult to stay educated on the things that you need to be educated on? Does it stretch people to be comfortable with certain technologies in order to do their jobs that don’t necessarily overlap with the things that for them are in the personal sphere of how they interact with computing devices?
I’m not sure about that, but I mean, my pithy answer is we’ve already been doing it, kid. We just don’t realize it because it’s been so ingrained into how the entirety of our lives have changed, not just our professional lives.
Yeah. That’s a good point. I think the idea that is both perhaps invigorating and also intimidating is the idea that there could be whole realms of knowledge that you need to incorporate into your practice in order to remain relevant. For instance, I could see parts of design becoming automated and now that you’re designing say for bio inspired materials, you need to go out and understand more about biology everyday, right?
In order for to be a designer who can play in this next level of material design. As much as I really love learning, I mean, sometimes I like familiarity, I like to use the tools I know how to use, I like to interact with people in the way that I’m used to, so I can see that starting to calcify in me, and I know I need to shake that up because I think if this report is right from McKinsey, over the next couple decades this idea of us having to evolve our jobs in conjunction with various automation, whether it be from robotics on the factory floor or AI that helps us do our UX jobs better.
We’re going to have to really work hand in hand with this automation in order for us to continue working in the way that we’re accustomed. Or, I suppose is 30% of our job is automated, maybe we’ll just work 70% of the time and have a few more days off. I guess that’s the other side of it.
You know, Jon, I also love learning. The challenge is that we’re all different in how we learn and what we’re comfortable learning. I can learn about history, civilization, like the human/animal, how we function, the soft sciences bleeding into biology. I can learn about that stuff until the frickin cows come home, man, and be happy and feel energized. If you are forcing me to learn a foreign language, if you’re forcing me to learn the hard sciences, basically any things that require a lot of rules, a lot of memorization, and a language abstraction, I’m miserable. Like, that’s going to be super hard for me and I’m either going to opt out or I’m going to be wicked unhappy in existing in that context.
I’m one idiosyncratic person. Your definition of the things that you love to learn and get turned on by, and the things that are a slog for you are going to be different. The next person will be different, the next person will be different, and what makes this so difficult are those differences. The world of technology and science is pulling in some very specific ways, the types of learning that we’ll need to do are similarly specific and I don’t think it comes down to love of learning in a general way. It comes down to dovetailing love of learning with finding places in which all of this is moving, that you love, and that you can learn, and that fit for you as the unique individual that you are.
I think that’s the tricky bit, and I think that’s what’s going to leave a lot of people behind, especially more on the design side who opted into design precisely because it is not the hard sciences and the engineering and the things on that side of the ledger. I think this process of continuous learning in order to stay relevant and effective, it’s going to challenge a lot of people in different ways. We just have to hopefully all find our place.
Yeah. I agree with that. I think that relates also to one of the other McKinsey findings which is that they’re saying that policymakers, the people who are helping to structure at least part of our economy will need to create innovative policies to help workers and institutions adapt to all of this change. Looking at this from a broader perspective, I’m sure that … You highlighted the differences between the way you and I like to learn, I’m sure we are also vastly different from people who are doing jobs in other fields that are changing just as rapidly. Bringing this continuous education to a broad swath of the workforce is probably one of the biggest challenges that we’ll face as a country going forward into this new automated world, right?
Like, how do you, with so many different learning styles, with so many opportunities for change in a variety of industries, like, what are the tools that enable people to make this transition? I think that’s going to be a big problem to solve.
Yeah, and I mean, who are the people, right? I mean, you and I are high performers, to some degree. I mean, the average person is an average performer, right? They’re someone who going through school isn’t necessarily the most engaged, the most loving learning and taking all of that in, right? We’re talking about you and I as high performers and how we may or may not adapt, and we see challenges for ourselves. What is it going to look like for someone who doesn’t have the same internal drive to learn, doesn’t have the same ambition, pressure to improve self and be successful? For someone who wants to live an ordinary life, for lack of a better word, and is an ordinary person, which is how most people are and it’s perfectly fine, how do they fit into this weird amalgam of lifelong learning, needing wicked science and engineering, all these different things?
There’s a temperament issue. Like, even beyond and before all of this different stuff, and so for me that’s the bigger question. It’s like when we’re talking about the people who already are high performers, who are generally the people who we work with who have opted into these spaces of high tech, it’s easier. It gets really hard once you get people who are wired a different way, and as they’re more automated jobs go away, and as they as animals, through some combination of nature and nurture, which I’m not qualified to point at and tell how much is one, how much is the other, just aren’t wired at this point to jump in and really participate with what is needed here.
What does that look like? Like, that’s where I start to get a little bit scared and concerned. How does this translate downstream? I don’t know.
Yeah. That’s an excellent question. I think one of the last points I want to bring up from the McKinsey report is that this automation is not going to happen overnight, and beyond the initial technologies we discussed, there’s all kinds of technical feasibility questions, there’s how do you fit this technology to different industries, whether it be manufacturing, agriculture, science, high tech, or even things like food service. How does automation fit into that? There are a lot of problems to solve before this takes hold and will happen over a long period of time, perhaps decades. Part of the question is how do we as a society usher in this age? How do we make sure that there’s opportunities for people who want to work but perhaps they’re not as good at learning how to work with robots?
Like, what does all of that look like? I don’t know, either, but it is not going to happen overnight so we do have an opportunity to address these challenges and make decisions as a society, as a country, so that our policies are beneficial to everybody who wants to keep working, basically, in this new age.
Hopefully. Hopefully, and I mean another complicating factor is that the automation, the robotics, it’s going to first be taking the jobs of perhaps the people least adept to learn anew, to redefine themselves, to really stretch into new spaces which is just a further complicating factor for the whole dynamic.
Yeah. That’s definitely something that’s going to be a huge challenge going forward.
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You can follow me on Twitter @dknemeyer that’s @d-k-n-e-m-e-y-e-r. Thank you so much for listening.
That’s it for episode 191 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett, and we’ll see you next time.