Reducing the Risk of ‘Being Replaced’
“Compassion: that’s the one thing no machine ever had. Maybe it’s the one thing that keeps men ahead of them.” — Dr. McCoy, The Ultimate Computer (Season 2, Episode 24, March 1968)
Most knowledge workers (myself included) are now at risk of being replaced in two different ways.
First, with remote work being common, it is now much more acceptable to simply hire a cheaper version of us in Buenos Aires, Bangalore, or Bangkok. Maybe knowledge workers who are performing adequately will not be fired. But if we demand an aggressive raise or leave a job, then management can justify replacing the role with remote labor in cheaper jurisdictions.
Second, Generative AI (algorithms such as ChatGPT released publicly in November 2022) is rapidly becoming mainstream in Q1 2023. It is now possible to create new content at a decent level of quality—text, images, audio, video, etc.—almost instantly and thus at a much lower total cost than using a human.
My business content feeds, particularly Twitter but also the newsletters I read, are full of tips on how to leverage these LLMs (large language models) to ensure that ‘workers’ keep the upper hand in the relationship with software.
The impression I am getting is that ‘no code’ software solutions (searches for which took off in early 2020) will be replaced with software powered by AI requiring ‘no need for extensive prior knowledge, expertise or deep skills in the area’.
My professional experience tells me that the logic that applies to bankruptcy and falling in love — ‘gradually and then all at once’ — also applies to new technical innovations, jobs, and changes in workplace behaviors.
I think back to the late 1990s, when yellow pages (who remembers those heavy books that were thrown in your driveway or left in your apartment mailroom) were still good business investments. Even after internet access was fairly mainstream (post Yahoo!, AoL, Craigslist, eBay, etc.) these businesses could be bought cheaply through leveraged buy-outs and then flipped to the next buyer. At some point in the mid 2000s, suddenly the investment case no longer worked. The majority had moved onto another, better solution to finding and researching businesses.
I suspect the same will be true of Generative AI. It will totally reinvent how work is done and how people are employed, including obviating for a people dedicated to many current, full-time roles.
I am unsure whether this transformation will happen in the next 3 years or the next 10 years. But I am confident it won’t be longer than a decade.
How Do We Stay Relevant?
How can we both earn a good living and do work that enhances our sense of purpose and meaning in life? For those just entering the workforce such as my two sons (whose careers I do think about), what was the norm even 5 years ago will apply in the years to come.
The Glass Half Full
The glass half-full perspective is that boring, repetitive, and depressing tasks in knowledge work will be automated – just as was done with toll-takers and parking lot attendants. And that new jobs and activities we have not yet dreamed up will emerge. In addition, having more time to reflect and think (rather than do the mundane) will improve overall creativity and problem solving.
Preparation: What We Can Do
“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” — Seneca the Younger.
Beyond simply hoping for the best and channeling our energy in positive directions, here are some thoughts I have for increasing our chances of positive outcomes.
- Do Work You Really Enjoy. This has never been more important. If you like what you do, you will spend more thinking about it (including subconsciously), and doing it. In turn, you will be better at it. Inevitably, we can’t do only the things we like — every role and job has some unfulfilling must dos. But we can focus our energy on solving problems we find interesting and meaningful.
- Channel Your Inner Therapist. Double down on emotional intelligence. Effective leadership is about both finding a solution and implementing it. The latter requires getting people aligned, helping them see the individual and organizational benefits of change, and motivating them to act in a different way.
- Be Curious. Keep Learning. I might sound like a broken record when I refer to the importance of continual learning. Automation is great at predicting a future path and generating ‘new’ content based on the combination of past inputs and a prompt. But, for the foreseeable future, AI driven by LLMs will not have innovative thoughts. So our opportunity as humans is to link ideas from disparate fields and suggest novel paths forward.
- Take Counter-Intuitive Risks. We live in an era where it is possible to get odds on almost anything and place a bet. In certain bets, the odds (set by human behavior and perception) are low (i.e.the chance of losing is high.) Being above average and outperforming requires taking risks where the odds are low (i.e. the majority of others disagree with you). Otherwise those opportunities would not exist. Humans are better positioned to take informed risks than machines. We should continue to rely on gut feel in certain situations.
- Be Uniquely Human. When it is a close call, people will still make decisions (even in business with RoI cases) based on liking the counterparty. Building affinity with others in a genuine manner is hard skill to teach machines. The rebirth of artisanship (e.g. farmer’s markets, hand-made, small batch items) and the increasing value attached to things made by humans we “know” is making
Play Infinite Games
The harnessing of analytics into decision-making in professional sports reveals how computers are excellent at suggesting choices when the rules are known, don’t change, and there is a bounded time in the game.
Humans are better suited to ‘Infinite Games’, which James P. Carse defines as follows:
“Finite games are those instrumental activities – from sports to politics to wars – in which the participants obey rules, recognize boundaries and announce winners and losers. The infinite game – there is only one – includes any authentic interaction, from touching to culture, that changes rules, plays with boundaries and exists solely for the purpose of continuing the game.”
The future will always be different from the past in ways we cannot predict. Success in a rapidly changing world requires actively seeking out different and novel thinking, embracing those aspects that fit with our value system, learning new skills, and committing to doing the work we truly enjoy.