Only Humans Need Apply: A book review by Bob Morris

Only HumansOnly Humans Need Apply: Winners and Losers in the Age of Smart Machines
Thomas H. Davenport and Julia Kirby
HarperBusiness/An Imprint of HarperCollins (May 2016)

How the most productive workplaces combine talented people with sophisticated machines in high-impact augmentation

There are tasks that some machines can complete better and faster than can other machines if (HUGE “if”) their efforts are augmented by human talents. Conversely, there are tasks that some people can complete better and faster than can other people if (another HUGE “if”) their efforts are augmented by technology.

As Thomas Davenport and Julia Kirby explain, augmentation occurs when “humans and machines combine their strengths to achieve more favorable outcomes than either could have done alone.” More specifically, “Augmentation means starting with what minds and machines do individually today and figuring out how that work could be deepened rather than diminished by a collaboration between the two. The intent is never to have less work for those expensive, high-maintenance humans. It allows them to do more valuable work.”

I agree with them that those now fixating on the threat of automation should “reframe the challenge as augmentation opens up a broader range of strategies for individual job holders and seekers.” Here are five viable options:

o Stepping Up: Become involved with decision-making that computers can’t make but can assist
o Stepping Aside: Move to non-decision-oriented areas in which computers cannot assist
o Stepping In: Improve computer-generated decisions
o Stepping Narrowly: Be a specialize in work that cannot be automated
o Stepping Forward: Develop new systems and technology that support intelligent decisions and actions

All of these steps are examined in Chapter 3, pages 76-77.

Here are Thomas Davenport and Julia Kirby’s concluding thoughts: “Today, many knowledge workers are fearful of the rise of the machines. We should be concerned, given the potential for these unprecedented tools to make us redundant. But we should not feel helpless in the midst of large-scale change unfolding around us. The steps are there for us to take. It’s up to us, individually, and collectively, to strike new, positive relationships with the machines we have made so capable. With our powers combined, we can make our workplaces, and our world, better than they have ever been.”

Machines do not live in fear of being replaced by humans…or by another machine. As I read the concluding paragraph of this book, I was again reminded of a passage from Alvin Toffler’s The Third Wave: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” It is naive to think that government will create jobs for those who do not currently possess employable skills. They must prepare themselves for and then pursue opportunities in human-machine augmentation. They must either add value to what machines can do or have the machines add value to what they can do.

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