“I, FOR ONE, WELCOME OUR NEW COMPUTER OVERLORDS.”
In 2011, millions watched as Ken Jennings scribbled this sentence on his answer screen, then looked up defeatedly into the luminous blue avatar of his opponent, a machine called Watson.
The occasion was a special “Man Versus Machine” episode of the quiz show “Jeopardy!” and Jennings had been chosen, along with fellow trivia savant Brad Rutter, to represent “Man.” They were, as Jennings put it, “the Great Carbon-Based Hope against a new generation of thinking machines.”
Jennings’ record alone would have struck fear into the heart of any flesh-and-blood opponent. His 74-game winning streak on “Jeopardy!” earned him a reputation as the greatest quiz show champion of all time — not to mention $2.5 million and a spot in the Guinness World Records book for “The Most Cash Won on a Game Show.”
But Watson, a natural-language processing computer invented by IBM, felt no trepidation. It cycled through questions with a buzzer speed only a machine could generate. And in a steady monotone voice, it delivered its (almost invariably correct) answers, swiftly and soundly beating Jennings and Rutter at their own game.
Jennings’ rueful response about “our new computer overlords” — a reference to an episode of “The Simpsons” — was only partly a joke. He did not believe Watson’s victory heralded a robot takeover of planet Earth. But he did have his misgivings. As he later reflected, “Just as factory jobs were eliminated in the 20th century by new assembly line robots, Brad and I were the first knowledge-industry workers put out of work by the new generation of ‘thinking’ machines.”
He concluded on a foreboding note: “‘Quiz show contestant’ may be the first job made redundant by Watson, but I’m sure it won’t be the last.”
Automation is the use of technology to perform a task or process, either partly or wholly independent of human oversight and inter.vention. Some of the phenomena driving our current automation boom are big data analytics, the internet of things (IoT) and technologies related to artificial intelligence (AI), such as natural language processing (NLP) and machine learning (ML).
Especially when combined with robotics, these technologies can form complete autonomous systems — such as autonomous vehicles, for example.
AUTOMATION IS COLLAR BLIND
Now, less than a decade after Watson processed its way to victory, Jennings’ words appear eerily prophetic. Today, it’s not blue-collar workers welding on a factory floor who worry their jobs will be automated out of existence; it is more skilled white-collar professionals such as financial analysts, journalists and doctors. (Recently an AI developed in Beijing diagnosed brain tumors more accurately than 15 of China’s top physicians.) Not even the art world is immune to automation: Last October, a painting generated by AI fetched a whopping $432,500 at a major art auction.
Perhaps most striking of all, new robots have encroached further than Watson on the human territories of reason, logic and argument. The first ever live debate between a human and an AI system took place this February. The human was world-renowned debate champion Harish Natarajan. The robot challenger was a new IBM creation: Project Debater, a descendant of Watson, which can analyze 300 million newspaper articles and scientific journals to formulate its arguments. It can also respond to its opponent’s counter-arguments and even crack a few jokes along the way. “I have heard you hold the world record in debate competition wins against humans,” Project Debater told Natarajan, “but I suspect you have never debated a machine. Welcome to the future.”
With reports of such machines appearing daily, the disquiet Ken Jennings expressed has become so widespread it now has a name. Experts are calling it “automation anxiety.” Fifty-six percent of Americans believe automation eliminates more jobs than it creates, and about a third worry that their job could soon be on the chopping block.
There’s even a website, WillRobotsTakeMyJob.com, where people can discover their job’s “Automation Risk Level” expressed in categories that range from “Totally safe” and “No worries” to “Robots are watching” and “You are doomed.” Sensational as it may sound, the site is rooted in credible research. The data, supplied by the Oxford Martin Programme on Technology and Employment, suggests that nearly half of total U.S. jobs are at risk of automation.
“How should we respond to automation anxiety?” was an open question on Notre Dame’s campus this fall during the conference, “Artificial Intelligence and Business Ethics: Friends or Foes?” convened by Tim Carone. Carone, an astrophysicist-turned-consultant who began teaching courses on artificial intelligence at Mendoza College of Business in 2015, invited Dan Faggella, CEO of tech research firm Emerj, to give the keynote presentation.
Faggella pointed out that many of the loudest voices currently responding to automation anxiety are driven by a specific agenda. Companies downplaying the threat of automation tend to be larger, people-heavy companies with set processes — in other words, the companies that stand to be most harmed by automation. But at the same time other companies — usually smaller, leaner companies, especially those already using AI — play up the risk in an effort to gain investors by appearing revolutionary and disruptive.
The truth, said Faggella, is more uncertain and more complex than both sides make it sound. Carone agrees. In his recent book, “Future Automation,” he writes, “Every change, whether the invention of electricity or the first refrigerators, put people out of work and changed our lives to various degrees. There will always be good, bad, and ugly when change occurs.”
What anxiety-ridden organizations and individuals really need is a vision for the future that is realistic and yet hopeful at the same time. But where can they find it?
THE TWO MEANINGS OF WORK
What if, instead of asking which jobs are in jeopardy, we asked a more fundamental question: “Why do we work in the first place?”
We often overlook this question, assuming that “jobs” and “work” mean roughly the same thing. But in his 1981 encyclical letter Laborem exercens, St. John Paul II argued that there is a wide difference between the two. “Jobs” have to do with what he calls the “objective” side of work. This side includes all of the tools, tasks, processes and technologies that make work possible. But there is another, more important side of work: the “subjective” side. This aspect of work is more fundamental. It is the way we “realize [our] humanity” and “fulfill the calling to be a person.”
The subjective side of work is all about purpose. We work to develop our capacities to the utmost, cultivate the families and communities we belong to, and advance culture and civilization for the common good. This is the kind of work Studs Terkel had in mind in his classic book “Working,” when he wrote, “Working is about the search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.”
Terkel recognized a yearning for this kind of work again and again as he traveled throughout the United States asking ordinary people about what they do all day. Ultimately, for John Paul II, this yearning never goes away. It is rooted within us as beings fashioned in the likeness of a creative God and called to do work that “shares in the work of creation.”
While the subjective aspect of work does not change, the objective side is in a state of constant flux: Instruments improve, processes change, technologies get invented or abandoned. These changes result in different kinds of jobs, new working conditions and novel employment arrangements. And for this very reason, John Paul II writes, “the topic of work is always relevant and constantly demands renewed attention and decisive witness.” Our challenge is to continually rediscover the timeless purpose of work in our own context.
Though he offered this vision of meaningful work nearly four decades ago, John Paul II was well acquainted with the threat of automation. The year before Laborem exercens appeared, The New York Times warned that “A Robot is After Your Job.” This is just one example of a familiar-sounding headline from a previous cycle of automation. John Paul II not only made note of “the widespread introduction of automation into many spheres of production,” he also anticipated that “for millions of skilled workers these changes may perhaps mean unemployment, at least for a time, or the need for retraining.”
Nevertheless, he points out two fundamental shifts in thinking that help us see technology as our ally, not our adversary.
First, John Paul II calls on us to recognize that machines cannot actually work. “It may seem that in the industrial process, it is the machine that ‘works’ and man merely supervises it,” he said. But only man is capable of work, he pointed out. New technologies aren’t substitutes for work; they are the results of work. They are simply the product of decades or even centuries of human creativity collected into a highly developed instrument. “The whole collection of instruments, no matter how perfect they may be in themselves, are only a mere instrument subordinate to human labour,” he added.
Second, as the product of human work, new technologies can and should benefit people. Thus, the recent explosion of technological advancement is an “advantageous and positive phenomenon,” but only provided that “the objective dimension of work does not gain the upper hand over the subjective dimension.” To advance culture and civilization, we need technology; it is “a basic coefficient of economic progress.”
But improvements in technology — in the objective side of work — do not guarantee authentic progress. Progress is real only when we uphold the dignity of human beings and serve the common good.
FINDING A CALLING
I recently sat down with Joe Holt, a teaching professor of business ethics at Mendoza, to ask him what John Paul II’s insights mean for us today. He began by pointing out that we’ve had automation anxieties of various kinds since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Often automation is positive.
“Around the time of the American Revolution,” Holt said, “the majority of the population was involved in farming. Now it’s less than 2 percent, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I think the fact that most of us don’t have to be farmers but can still eat well frees us up to do other work we might find more fulfilling.”
We sat in his office next to a picture in which he, a former Jesuit, is celebrating Mass with none other than John Paul II himself. Holt, who often teaches Mendoza’s Spirituality of Work course, sees John Paul II’s link between work and faith as essential in the face of automation. “A lot of what we fear is change,” he said. “We become comfortable with the way things are. And faith is relevant to that. It is all about stepping into an uncertain future.”
Holt insists the key is to listen for and seek out a calling. He thinks of the disciples putting down their nets, leaving behind their jobs (and everything else) to follow Jesus. “Did they have any idea where they were going?” Holt asked rhetorically. “I think the best is, ‘not at all.’” Echoing John Paul II, he said, “A calling is not necessarily a matter of the particular job you’re doing; it’s more a matter of why you’re doing it. A carpenter could have a calling while a heart surgeon may not, if the surgeon is motivated primarily by the desire to make a lot of money or be known as prominent and the carpenter is motivated by a genuine love for the people he or she is building something for.”
Holt is not alone in suggesting that callings and meaningful work are essential for stepping boldly into the unknown future of work. In fact, tech companies themselves are beginning to recognize this need. In his first interview after becoming CEO of Microsoft in 2014, Satya Nadella was asked about his big-picture plans for the company. He spoke not about new, disruptive technologies, but about work: “For us to be a 100-year old company where people find deep meaning at work,” he said, “that’s the quest.”
Similarly, IBM recently surveyed 23,000 employees to create an Employee Experience Index in the belief that our era is “a time when work can be a more rewarding experience for employees.” This isn’t pie.in-the-sky idealism. These companies recognize that disruption may have created their success, but it will take committed, engaged, purpose-driven employees to sustain it. “More positive employee experiences are linked to better performance, extra effort at work and lower turnover intentions,” IBM found.
So eager are some companies to capture the benefits of meaningful work, they have begun paying their employees to do meaningful work outside the organization. Google recently piloted a fellowship program that pays Google employees to work for nonprofits. A similar program has been running since 2016 at IBM and provides employees with paid time off to address health crises around the world. These companies could simply donate money or products to nonprofits. But this approach allows the company’s employees to connect to a larger sense of purpose — and then bring that sense of purpose back to the organization. One participant said the experience helped him to avoid burnout. The ability “to see my work from a different perspective ... renewed my passion for my day-to-day work,” he said. And an IBM internal survey confirmed that 80 percent of managers agree that participants in the program return more positive and motivated than when they left.
CRAFTING A CALLING
If on the one hand, automation creates uncertainty and highlights the need to approach our work as a calling, it may also provide a set of concrete strategies for doing so.
Throughout the 20th century, academic research largely ignored ideas like “callings” and “meaningful work.” But that changed in the early 2000s, when Amy Wrzesniewski, now a professor at Yale, and her colleagues made a surprising discovery while studying a group of 28 hospital janitors. Each janitor had the same job description — cleaning up messes, unclogging toilets, collecting soiled linens and so on.
But Wrzesniewski and her colleagues found vast differences in ways the janitors understood their work. Some saw it as simple drudgery. They did the minimum amount of work required to collect their paycheck and were generally miserable while doing it. A select group, however, went the extra mile, doing work above and beyond their job description. They also saw their work as more highly skilled and found it much more enjoyable.
Take, for example, one janitor named Luke. Luke once cleaned a patient’s room twice because the first time he cleaned it, the patient’s father, who was deeply upset by his son’s condition, had been absent from the room. Luke scoured it again, not because he didn’t do a good job the first time, but because he wanted the father to see that his son was being well cared for.
Wrzesniewski and her colleagues concluded that Luke and the other custodians who enjoyed their work saw their work as a calling. They approached it as a challenge and they felt a connection to the people they served and to the people they worked with. Most importantly, they felt that they had a role in the overall purpose of the workplace.
In order to allow more employees to experience these benefits, the researchers point out that we need to shift the way we think about them. Instead of envisioning employees as passive units of labor waiting to be cut loose when a newer, cheaper, more efficient form of labor comes along, we need to re-envision them as active participants who have valuable ideas about how to shape their own work, engaging in what Wrzesniewski and her colleagues call “job crafting.”
By re-envisioning employees as active participants in crafting their own jobs, we can also empower employees to make automation part of this task. This places them not in the position of a victim but in the position of an innovator. Automating certain tasks — especially less engaging, repetitive ones — can help them shift toward more fulfilling tasks. Like Luke, they may even shift toward tasks that allow them to interact with others and exercise their uniquely human “soft skills” such as empathy and compassion.
At the same time, employees can recognize that automation does not always mean giving up the tasks they enjoy. AI can quite often enhance performance without replacing humans, just as we use a GPS to enhance our driving.
Most importantly, a positive “job-crafting” approach to work can help employees embrace ongoing learning. Recently, consulting group McKinsey & Co. asked companies with more than $100 million in annual revenue, “How important is addressing potential skills gaps related to automation and/or digitization in your organization’s workforce?” Seventy-seven percent of U.S. companies surveyed said it was a top 10 priority.
Most companies seek to bridge the skills gap by “reskilling” (teaching a different skill set) and “upskilling” (teaching additional skills) to existing employees. But in order for these momentous changes to go smoothly, employers need to communicate that working with automation rather than against it is the way to greater personal growth, increased security and a deeper sense of purpose.
For some of us, automation can help in another way. It can provide time for meaningful work outside the workplace. Despite advancing technology and efficiency, our main model for jobs — the 40-hour work week — dates from a century ago. Productivity gains and flexibility provided by automation may also open up new avenues to rethink this model to include more good, meaningful work that falls outside our job.
Raising children, caring for elders or volunteering, for example, are all types of deeply meaningful and important work; they are simply not often rewarded with a paycheck. Automation may mean that more companies can contribute to authentic progress by recognizing that the workplace is not the only place where meaningful work happens.
Looking ahead toward an automated future in 1955, Peter Drucker wrote, “If there is one thing certain under automation, it is that the job ... will change radically and often.” Drucker was half right: Change is certain, but it is not the only thing that is certain. Our tasks, jobs and employment arrangements might change radically in the future, but the sense of meaning we crave from work will not.
Though the future is uncertain, it is important to remember that we already have a lot of room for improvement: We currently spend a third of our waking lives at our jobs, and far too few of us find meaning there. One recent poll found that a quarter of Americans say their jobs make no meaningful contribution to the world. And only 27 percent said they find their job “very fulfilling.”
The work of the future can be better than the work of the present. The key is to begin to understanding automation correctly — neither as an adversary nor as a guarantee of progress, but rather as a tool to help us focus on work that challenges us, that nourishes our communities and has a real impact on society.
And that is a future that, I, for one, would welcome.
ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT
27% of Americans said they find their job “very fulfilling.” One recent poll found that a quarter of Americans say their jobs make no meaningful contribution to the world.
PAID TIME OFF FOR MEANINGFUL WORK
80% of managers agree that participants in the program return more positive and motivated than when they left
“JOB-CRAFTING” APPROACH TO WORK
77% of U.S. companies surveyed said it was a top 10 priority
Brett Beasley is the associate director of the Notre Dame Deloitte Center for Ethical Leadership