What determines our success when working with machines

A few weeks ago, I saw a tweet by @budescode: “To replace programmers with robots, clients will have to accurately describe what they want. We are safe.”

At first, this tweet made me smile, as I could relate it to the many stories (and often frustrations) that I have heard from friends and business partners working in tech in the past few years. But it also made me think. Through years of enabling technology adoption, I know that one of the top tech rejection factors is the fear of being replaced by a machine. So, seeing a tech-related tweet that mentions replacement end with the expression ‘We are safe’, was surprising to me.

Fear of replacement by technology is not new and generally a common byproduct to human innovation. However, with the rapid improvement of AI skills and their potential for workplace applications, the fear of replacement by advanced technologies has increased as well. And this fear is impacting productivity, innovation, and general well-being of people at the workplace.

For example, fear of replacement diminishes trust that people have in a new application or tool, which is essential for effective integration, collaboration, and communication. It also hinders people’s capacity and will to innovate, as they are afraid that their new ideas might eventually lead to them becoming expendable. And generally, multiple studies have shown that fear negatively impacts employee’s productivity, motivation, focus, confidence, learning capacity, stress levels, as well as general happiness and well-being.

Fear of replacement has been fueling technology rejection, which is a leading cause in the failure of digital transformation projects. However, the pandemic, and its accompanying acceleration of technology integration, may have shifted our tech-related fears to other issues. At least judging by the high number of positive reactions and shares of the tweet by @budescode on various accounts and social media platforms, it seems that new frustrations (like client miscommunication) may now trump people’s fear of being replaced by technology.


But are we safe?

When you set ‘being safe’ equal to ‘not being replaced’, there are conflicting arguments by business and technology experts for either side. For example, Max Tegmark, AI researcher and professor at MIT, predicts that at some point in the future (though possibly far away), all jobs currently done by humans will be overtaken by machines. In his book ‘Life 3.0’ he compares the role of humans to that of horses, who used to be invaluable means of transport but were made redundant by ‘mechanical muscles’. On the other side, other credited researchers, like Kate Darling, a research specialist for ethical implications of technology also at MIT, argues in her book ‘The new breed’ that robots are not here to replace but rather to complement humans, in a similar relationship as humans have had to animals in the past centuries.

Besides the insight that it must be fun and perhaps a bit dangerous to live on the MIT campus, this dividedness of renowned researchers shows that we simply do not know whether our work will be carried out by machines in the future. However, I believe that when it comes to ‘being safe’ we should not just consider the replacement factor, but rather our ability to thrive in a changing market. And at least within the upcoming decade, efficient collaboration with increasingly intelligent machines will be the deciding success factor for that.


So what makes up a successful human-robot collaboration?

The answer is already in the subtext of the tweet by @budescode: Our complementary skill-sets. To collaborate successfully, we should embrace our complementary strengths and improve on them. For robots this means getting even better at automating quantitative tasks at speed and basically freeing humans of all dirty, dull, or dangerous tasks. For humans this means innovative, strategic thinking (check out the top skills needed by humans by 2025 here) that enable us to understand not only customer’s, but society’s demands, even when they do not understand these fully themselves. But there is another human role that is becoming increasingly important: building a bridge between business and technology. Within any organization, the IT and business departments need to be able to communicate with each other. The client demands do not only need to be understood and forecasted, but they also have to be translated into concrete technology applications – and these need to be communicated back to the client. For that, we need people that can do both: tech development and connecting them to market demands. Within any organization, these ‘bridges’ can be one of three types of people:

Every organization that wants to thrive or even just survive in the next decade needs at least one of these people to be able to serve their growing digital-hungry client base.

Do you have these people in your organization? Are you safe?

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