Rise of the Machines

HR needs to adapt to technological advances

By Aliah Wright Oct 10, 2014
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LAS VEGAS—Milking cows and driving cars—two activities we tend to think of as being solely performed by human hands, right?

Not anymore.

During his keynote session at Human Resource Executive magazine’s 17th Annual HR Technology Conference & Exposition, Andrew McAfee, principal research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, didn’t paint a portrait of a dystopian Terminator-like future where machines replace humans in mundane activities and at work. Rather, he said, the most successful companies in the future will be those that embrace the “geeks and the scientists,” who rely on data and use the wisdom of crowds in order to get work done.

In a world where dairy farms use machines to milk cows (and the cows like it) and where innovators like Google deploy cars that drive themselves (in traffic), companies will need to rethink how they can adapt to a climate of rapid technological advances.

“I don’t want to a paint a picture of humanity completely being pushed off to the margins because of this technological progress and us having nothing left to contribute,” he said. “What I do think we need to do is re-examine that balance between technology and humanity.”

“We need to get our arms and minds around this phenomenon,” he said, adding that he and Erik Brynjolfsson, co-authors of the best-selling book The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies (W.W. Norton & Company, 2014), were “blown away” by the examples of technology they saw while researching the book. “Technology is now doing things that it is not supposed to do.”

For example, McAfee said, he took a ride with Google engineers as they sat in the front seat of a driverless car and pushed a red button to let the car drive through traffic.

“The car was driving itself,” he said. “But the car drives the way we are all taught in driver’s ed: It doesn’t speed, it doesn’t change lanes, it doesn’t flip off other drivers. It just drives down the highway obeying all relevant rules. It felt like the monorail that takes you from the gate to terminal in some airports.” Google’s driverless cars can’t do everything yet: “They can’t handle every situation or drive in all conditions. But I’m here to tell you—they are amazingly good,” he said.

However, despite such technological advances, humans still have one arena in which they excel. “What we are really good at is not either pattern matching or complex communication—it’s both of those things simultaneously, and that is where we humans still hold the highest ground. We’re the synthesizers,” McAfee said. But machines are closing the gap.

“Humans are supposed to be good at complex communication; what’s surprising me is how good technology is getting at doing that.”

He pointed to company earnings news and other articles in Forbes magazine that have been written by computers at Narrative Science, a company that says, “If you give us a body of data … we will write a clear English prose narrative about that data. And it will be grammatically perfect and it will have a tone to it and it will have an arc. It won’t read like dry recitation of facts.”

As a result of all the technological advances that are being made “we’re going to see big performance changes,” McAfee stated. “Management and leadership will change and be more open and more data-driven,” he continued, adding, “There will be a great deal of disruption—not just in Silicon Valley, but across the economy.”

He called the rise of the machines the “biggest change since the Industrial Revolution,” pointing out that it will happen “during the careers of the people in this room.”

Aliah Wright is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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