Monkeys, Robots & Your Future

A friend of mine was recently talking to an importer who represented an enormous rubber plantation in Sri Lanka. Evidently, the first step in making rubber is for someone to climb a tree, strip back some bark, and insert a tap into the trunk to enable the sap to flow out. My friend was asking the importer about the costs to do that, and the importer replied: “Our costs are really low. To be honest, we’ve trained monkeys to do it”.

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How many times have we heard someone say “that job is so easy I could train a monkey to do it”? This is the first time I’ve ever heard that really happening. Apparently, they also need to grab coconuts from trees to get coconut milk as part of their manufacturing process, and they’ve trained the monkeys to do that also.

Meanwhile, automated cars are driving on public roads, drones are delivering packages, and human-guided robots are performing surgeries. It’s only a matter of time before most vehicles on the roads are fully automated, planes lack pilots, and surgical robots don’t need a human to guide them. And there’s this: we haven’t even begun to scratch the surface.

Naturally, this can create worry. To quote William Bossert, a former computer science professor from Harvard, “If you’re afraid that you might be replaced by a computer, then you probably can be – and should be”.

Geoff Colvin has written a book on this topic: Humans are Underrated. To get a sense as to Geoff’s take, you should check out this article on the subject.

Monkeys and machines replacing low-skill labor. Algorithms and robots replacing high-skill labor. What’s a human to do?

Last week I wrote about the importance of the Human Moment in leadership.  The term “human moment” is an excellent way to capture where tomorrow’s jobs will be. Framing the question as “what will we always be better at than computers?” is the wrong way to frame the question, since there’s probably very little computers won’t be able to improve upon a human alternative.

But what sense is there in trying to out-machine a machine? Our ability to flex, change, plan, empathize, adapt, judge and lead will remain what tomorrow’s human jobs will require, regardless of what advances are brought forth by tomorrow’s automation.

From Colvin’s article: “As a result, the meaning of great performances has changed. It used to be that you had to be good at being machine-like. Now, increasingly, you have to be good at being a person. Great performance requires us to be intensely human beings.”

There won’t be a lot of truck-driving jobs in the future (currently the number one job among men) nor as many clerical jobs (currently number one among women).  There will be new jobs to replace those, but they’ll be different and will require deeper human skills like empathy and collaboration (particularly collaboration in a diverse/multinational environment).  Check out Colvin’s book and writing on this topic for more insight.

Ready or not, the future’s coming.  Good luck!