Where Human Workers Can Still Beat Robots (at Least for Now)

In jobs from the retail floor to the developers' office, workers are losing the race against machines. Who can still compete against androids -- and for how long?

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Although computers are encroaching into territory that used to be occupied by people alone, like advanced pattern recognition and complex communication, for now humans still hold the high ground in each of these areas. Experienced doctors, for example, make diagnoses by comparing the body of medical knowledge they've accumulated against patients' lab results and descriptions of symptoms, and also by employing the advanced subconscious pattern recognition abilities we label "intuition." (Does this patient seem like they're holding something back? Do they look healthy, or is something off about their skin tone or energy level?) Similarly, the best therapists, managers, and salespeople excel at interacting and communicating with others, and their strategies for gathering information and influencing behavior can be amazingly complex.

But it's also true that as we move deeper into the second half of the chessboard, computers are rapidly getting better at both of these skills. We're starting to see evidence that this digital progress is affecting the business world. A March 2011 story by John Markoff in the New York Times highlighted how heavily computers' pattern recognition abilities are already being exploited by the legal industry where, according to one estimate, moving from human to digital labor during the discovery process could let one lawyer do the work of 500.

In January, for example, Blackstone Discovery of Palo Alto, Calif., helped analyze 1.5 million documents for less than $100,000. ...

"From a legal staffing viewpoint, it means that a lot of people who used to be allocated to conduct document review are no longer able to be billed out," said Bill Herr, who as a lawyer at a major chemical company used to muster auditoriums of lawyers to read documents for weeks on end. "People get bored, people get headaches. Computers don't."

The computers seem to be good at their new jobs. ... Herr ... used e-discovery software to reanalyze work his company's lawyers did in the 1980s and '90s. His human colleagues had been only 60 percent accurate, he found. "Think about how much money had been spent to be slightly better than a coin toss," he said.

And an article the same month in the Los Angeles Times by Alena Semuels highlighted that despite the fact that closing a sale often requires complex communication, the retail industry has been automating rapidly.

In an industry that employs nearly 1 in 10 Americans and has long been a reliable job generator, companies increasingly are looking to peddle more products with fewer employees. ... Virtual assistants are taking the place of customer service representatives. Kiosks and self-service machines are reducing the need for checkout clerks.

Vending machines now sell iPods, bathing suits, gold coins, sunglasses and razors; some will even dispense prescription drugs and medical marijuana to consumers willing to submit to a fingerprint scan. And shoppers are finding information on touch screen kiosks, rather than talking to attendants. ...

The [machines] cost a fraction of brick-and-mortar stores. They also reflect changing consumer buying habits. Online shopping has made Americans comfortable with the idea of buying all manner of products without the help of a salesman or clerk.

During the Great Recession, nearly 1 in 12 people working in sales in America lost their job, accelerating a trend that had begun long before. In 1995, for example, 2.08 people were employed in "sales and related" occupations for every $1 million of real GDP generated that year. By 2002 (the last year for which consistent data are available), that number had fallen to 1.79, a decline of nearly 14 percent.

If, as these examples indicate, both pattern recognition and complex communication are now so amenable to automation, are any human skills immune? Do people have any sustainable comparative advantage as we head ever deeper into the second half of the chessboard? In the physical domain, it seems that we do for the time being. Humanoid robots are still quite primitive, with poor fine motor skills and a habit of falling down stairs. So it doesn't appear that gardeners and restaurant busboys are in danger of being replaced by machines any time soon.

Presented by

Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee

Erik Brynjolfsson is the chair of the MIT Sloan Management Review, where Andrew McAfee is a principal research scientist. They are the co-authors of the new book Race Against the Machine. More

Andrew McAfee, a principal research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), studies the ways that information technology (IT) affects businesses. He coined the phrase 'Enterprise 2.0'; his book on the topic was published in 2009 by Harvard Business School Press. He has also held appointments as a professor at Harvard Business School and a fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

 

Erik Brynjolfsson is the director of the MIT Center for Digital Business, the Schussel Family Professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, and chair of the MIT Sloan Management Review. His research examines the effects of information technologies on business strategy, productivity, Internet commerce, pricing models, and intangible assets. Brynjolfsson is coauthor of Wired for Innovation: How IT is Reshaping the Economy (MIT Press, September 2009).

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