It’s happened — robots are taking over the world. According to MIT Technology Review, recent studies of IT trends suggest that 45 percent of American occupations will be automated within the next 20 years. It’s no surprise, then, that many IT pros are caught in the throes of Isaac Asimov’s “Frankenstein Complex” — the belief that as robots become increasingly sophisticated, they will eventually make humans obsolete. Recent advancements in both automation and artificial intelligence (AI) seem to suggest this isn’t so far-fetched, so how do companies light a fire to foil the Frankenstein Complex?
Pink Slip Paranoia
A century ago, John Maynard Keynes described current IT trends in two words: Technological unemployment. In other words, it’s the replacement of multiskilled laborers with machines designed to perform a specific set of tasks. According to MarketWatch, the “de-skilling” of many professionals may lead to a world that sees workers simply trying to make a living rather than prosper as autonomous robots take on more and more corporate responsibility.
This is already happening in many factories, with semi-intelligent machines performing particularly dangerous, monotonous, or detail-oriented jobs. From a business perspective, there’s some solid logic here: workers enjoy reduced risk, tasks are completed with fewer errors, and total revenues go up. The next step? Kicking IT pros to the curb. As technological advancements produce “thinking” machines capable of referencing historical and current data to make quick decisions, the need for human expertise will dwindle. Already, IT pros are adapting to the presence of big data software systems, intelligent security monitoring tools, and devices capable of extremely accurate voice recognition and response.
Think about the role of a front-line IT admin. If robotics companies can produce a bot capable of monitoring network performance, predicting user issues, and resolving IT tickets autonomously — all without the need for a salary or benefits — what happens to the hardworking IT pro who earns a six-figure salary? Even if staff members stay on after the robot revolution, no one wants their boss to be a cold, unfeeling machine (any more than the existing human counterpart, at any rate). Plus, it’s not quite as much fun to spite the boss with the occasional under-the-breath expression of subordinate fury if all you’ll get back is a polite, robotic reply should the snark be overheard. Automated managers just aren’t any fun.
The New Market
Fortunately, the reality doesn’t favor Frankenstein. Here’s why:
- Substitution vs. Complementation: As noted by The Wall Street Journal, one reason the rise of robot workers hasn’t killed the labor force — and never will — is the balance between substitution and complementation. Substitution occurs when a technological process completely eliminates the need for a human worker. Good examples here include attaching car doors, inputting rows of data, or monitoring network traffic. However, most jobs encompass more than a single function, and many require human oversight to make key decisions at critical points. In the majority of cases, technology complements the position rather than replaces it outright. Consider the rise of cloud infrastructure. While offsite hardware and support lessens the burden on IT pros, it doesn’t replace the need for human oversight when it comes to purchasing decisions, implementation timelines, or access requirements.
- The Social Safety Net: It’s also worth noting that there are some positions robots are uniquely unsuited to fill, specifically those that revolve around sociability and creativity. While it’s possible to mimic the bare-bones processes of social interaction or creation, the randomness and subtlety required make machines a hard sell here. Meanwhile, for IT pros, this means tech skills alone may not be enough to guarantee future employment.
- Mind the AI Gap: Hollywood informs the ideal of AI with machines that walk, talk, and think like human beings. In reality, this isn’t cost-effective. Instead, companies are investing time and money to develop project-specific AI that excels at certain tasks or when bounded by specific parameters. This type of broad-spectrum Lt. Cmdr. Data- or Terminator-type AI is often used as a scare tactic and is nothing more than sci-fi fantasy.
All Hail the Robot Executive?
Not quite yet. New IT trends mean that robots are great at menial, repetitive tasks and are starting to excel at more complex thinking challenges. However, a combination of complementation, a lack of programmable social skills, and the AI gap means IT pros aren’t in danger of pink slips anytime soon, and they’re better served making friends with rather than fighting with Frankenstein’s monster.
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