A few weeks ago I attended the annual conference of MIT’s Initiative on the Digital Economy. The day-long conference featured a number of interesting talks on the impact of digital technologies on business, the economy and society. Tom Davenport, - Babson College professor and IDE Fellow, - gave one such talk on technology and jobs, based on his recently published book Only Humans Need Apply: Winners and Losers in the Age of Smart Machines, co-authored with HBR editor Julia Kirby.
Davenport started his talk by noting that over the past two centuries we’ve seen three distinct stages of automation, based on the kinds of jobs that were replaced by machines. The machines of the first automation era “relieved humans of work that was manually exhausting,” making up for our physical limitations, - steam engines and electric motors enhanced our physical power while railroads, cars and airplanes helped us go faster and farther.
Next came the automation of jobs involving routine tasks that could be well described by a set of rules and were thus prime candidates for IT substitution. “Era Two automation doesn’t only affect office workers. It washes across the entire services-based economy that arose after massive productivity gains wiped out jobs in agriculture, then manufacturing.” It threatened many transactional service jobs that “are so routinized that they are simple to translate into code,” from bank tellers to airline reservations clerks.
We’ve now entered the third era of automation. Our increasingly smart machines are “now breathing down our necks… This time the potential victims are not tellers and tollbooth collectors, much less farmers and factory workers, but rather all those knowledge workers who assumed they were immune from job displacement by machines,…” including, - as Davenport and Kirby poignantly remind us, - “People like the writers and readers of this book.”