Cyber-physical systems | can you outperform technology?
*Before some launch to criticise our use of the term “cyber-physical [systems]” in this blog, we are referring to hybrid networks of people and technology where “the word (CPS) refers to a new cohort of systems with integrated computational and physical capabilities that can collaborate with humans through many new techniques” (Lokesh, Kumaraswamy & Tejawimi, 2016, p. 104)
“We are exceeded by what we create” (Latour, 1996, p.237)
The invisible hand of technology is squeezing the human advantage out of already volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous labour market landscapes. The threat of Artificial Intelligence (AI), nanotechnology, machine learning and robotic alternatives threatens the future of the knowledge worker. The question is will you survive, thrive (outperform technology) or be an irrelevance in the Fourth Industrial Revolution?
People and technology have always co-existed within hybrid networks or systems – for example, imagine how efficient/effective a doctor would be without the assistance of technology, from a simple stethoscope to MRI scanners. Across time, from lamp-trimmers to secretaries, lower-order jobs have always been vulnerable to displacement by technology advancements. However, the invisible hand of technology is silently moving to threaten middle-order employment, from accountants and lawyers to nurses and doctors.
Technology gains a foothold where people see an opportunity for jobs to be done more efficiently and effectively. After all, us pesky humans are prone to error, we need training and supervision, and we can’t be trusted, which means expending resources to maintain surveillance and discipline. The problem, highlighted by the opening Latour quote, is that technology designers cannot prescribe the uses for their creations, which leads to unintended consequences (e.g. see the open letter to the UN about AI and ‘killer robots’). Arguable, one of those unintended consequences is a network tipping away from a human led advantage toward technology; a tipping-point where cyber will have an increasing presence and authority over the physical. The simple truth is that if someone can observe you doing your job and replicate what you do, you are vulnerable to ex-corporation, where the job is incorporated into a technology-based solution.
In cyber-physical networks the productive and talented knowledge worker will outperform technology and thrive. But technology, while enabling these higher-order workers will discriminate against others, displacing existing human advantage in cyber-physical networks. For example, technology has assisted Human Professionals to screen job candidates, but, why does an organisation need a HR assistant to do this when AI can do the job more efficiently and effectively? It used to be argued that certain lower-order positions were safe havens and that white collar workers were safer than middle managers when it came to automation. However, even traditionally “safe” jobs in fast food restaurants are under threat, where demands for higher wages and cheaper technology solutions has led to automated ordering stations.
“If you’re making labor more expensive, and automation less expensive — this is not rocket science,” (Andy Puzder, the CEO of Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s)
Employers and governments are complaining of lower levels of productivity and labour market skills gaps – for example, skills gaps have been touted as the reason why six-million US jobs remain unfilled in 2017. Last year, Mark Carney, Chairman of the Bank of England, reported uncertainty to be 1.5 standard deviations above historical averages, resulting in lower levels of investment and Gross Domestic Product; the outcome being that organisations are less willing to take risks, lower levels of capital are deployed, and growth slows. The conditions combine to constrain job opportunities, leading to lower levels of on-the-job skills development, and a requirement for people to be efficient and effective from day one. Where this is not the case, and increasingly it isn’t, technology solutions become more appealing and the human advantage is further eroded.
Dig deeper and it is clear that the human advantage in cyber-physical networks is under critical threat. To not only survive, but outperform and thrive in cyber-physical networks, you have to adapt and reframe what you believe to be the human advantage. If you don’t, if you chose to ignore the warning signs, you might as well walk across a six-lane motor/highway blindfolded.
Discarding people is easy. But Human Resource Managers and those responsible for Learning & Development have a duty of care to recruit and prepare existing workers for a future that will increasingly test human resilience in the workplace. On the other hand, in the future, Human Resource Management might be an AI system programmed for surveillance and discipline, after all, isn’t that what HR does anyway?