The Robots Want Your Job. Should You Fight Them?

In 2008 a lot of people lost their jobs. You can blame some bankers in New York, London, Reykjavik and other financial centers for that. At least you can blame them as being the proximal cause. In some candid interviews, CEOs of major companies admitted that they were laying people off they probably didn't really need anyway. Automation had improved the productivity of their operations enough that the financial crises became a good excuse to cut some dead wood. After hearing that, it's probably no surprise that as the economy recovered, a lot of the jobs didn't return.

Is the coming wave of automation, with smarter, more dexterous robots and more advanced algorithms, going to take our jobs away? Maybe yes. Maybe no. Maybe we'll learn to work alongside them, removing the drudgery from our jobs and making us even more indispensable.

There are economists, technologists, and pundits firmly entrenched on both sides of that debate. On the one side, you can easily see how robots are getting better at the jobs that we used to think were safe. In 2004, the economist David Autor used driving a car as the perfect example of a job that only a human can do. Whoops.

It's easy to see the existing jobs that a robot could probably do in a few years, but an optimist might point out how hard it is to see the new jobs we're going to invent in the coming years. Ten years ago, you probably hadn't heard of a app developer, social media consultant, or personal chef.

The promise of automation has always been that it could do the grunt work that we don't particularly like. A researchers can now do a text search in a few minutes instead of spending days in the stacks and still not be sure if they missed some vital reference. We've always looked forward to the day when we didn't have to vacuum, mow the lawn, or clear the table. We could be freed to do enlightening, interesting things.

At work, the boring, dangerous, or repetitive tasks are the easiest to automate. If your job consists solely of those kinds of tasks you're probably in trouble, if not already out of a job. Fortunately, most jobs have other tasks that require incite, imagination, creativity and other cognitive abilities that probably won't be automated any time soon.

That probably sounds great. If you're good at the difficult to automate parts of your job, then you'll have no problem working with the computers or robots and becoming even more productive and indispensable.

If you read my previous post, you probably already see the catch. This is a situation that looks suspiciously close the 4-Hour Work Week Nightmare Scenario. Those of us who have managed to keep our jobs in an automated workplace have done so by learning to be flexible, and to work with the automation to do our jobs even more efficiently. The cost is that as the robots, algorithms, and workflows remove the tedious parts of our jobs, we're expected to operate at our peak focus for longer and longer periods. When I was working as a chemist, I came to treasure my "mill time." This was the time when I was making a new component on the CNC mill. Setting up, taking down, and monitoring the process was mostly mindless and gave me break from coding, writing papers, and other brain-intensive activities.

From time to time, there is agitation that we need to break free from the status quo of the 9-5, 40 hour work weeks. A lot of companies have embraced flex time or work from home policies to give their employees more flexibility to manage not just their lives, but their energy.

I'm seeing more and more people putting down the arbitrary decision that 40 hours is a suitable weekly work load. These calls aren't just coming from hipsters and anarchists, but also from stogy sources like Forbes and CNN and FastComany. Companies would be only to happy to (and often do) ask us to work longer hours, but they don't have science on their side. You can ask a guy to screw in a bolt over and over for 80 hours a week, but if you ask someone to do cognitively challenging tasks for too long, they're productivity tanks. Mistakes start to creep and before long, they're less productive than a half-timer. There's a growing understanding that you get more from your employees if you ask them to work less. There are biological limits to how many hours someone can spend in highly focussed flow state.

Here are some trends I've been seeing in the past few years.

  • More and more people are treating the 40 hour work week and an arbitrary and evil imposition to peoples happiness and health
  • More and more people arguing against the idea you tell person to be creative, focused and insightful on a 9-5 schedule. If someone is most creative at 8pm, you're wasting their time (and your money) making them sit a desk chair during their least productive times.
  • Meditation, mindfulness, cold brew coffee, and anything else that might help us focus more, better, or longer get's a headline just about every day.

I think it's no coincidence these are happening at the same time. People are getting fed up with working for 40 hours a week at the same time that computers are getting much better at taking away the time-consuming and low-attention parts of our jobs. I think as our focus, our creativity, and our insightfulness are extracted from us ever more efficiently, we're running into our natural limits. Whether your running a marathon or doing a marathon coding session, running into your limit is exhausting. When your work was 90% mindless, you could easily put in 40 hours and come home relaxed and ready for an evening with friends. When you job is 90% full-on, laser-focused, head-down concentration, you're some kind of savant if you can do it, and your evening will probably be spent in a quiet room with the lights off.

Automation might let you keep your job. You just might end up wishing it hadn't.