MOUNTAIN LAKES, NJ October 22, 2002 What will millions of employees do when smart new technology makes their services unnecessary? "A time bomb is ticking," says Richard W. Samson, an expert on the convergence of mind and electronics. He documents the problem and points the way to the solution in his latest book, The Human Edge, now in preparation.
Smart tech, as Samson calls it, includes artificial intelligence, phone systems that recognize speech, automated grocery checkout stations, and airline ticketing on the Internet. It also includes a fast-proliferating new form known as Web Services. Major companies are investing millions in its rollout. As a consequence, "many white-collar jobs will become terminal," says Samson.
"Companies want to do right by their employees, but theyre driven by the need to cut costs and increase efficiency. Smart tech accomplishes that for them by automating things they now hire people to do," he says. In a typical system, an electronically placed order triggers electronic processes of fulfillment and billing, which in turn trigger auto-updates of related systems such as inventory and purchasing. Between companies, Web Services software connects collaborating systems and transmits messages similar to email, except no human is needed to "read" or act on the contents. "Developers strive for zero, meaning zero human involvement."
The rollout of Web Services appears to be substantial. A survey of 796 medium to large companies, conducted last April by The FactPoint Group and Outsource Research Consulting, indicated that nearly half are piloting or deploying Web Services. According to a report released last December by ZapThink, LLC, an Internet technology analyst group, the U.S. market for Web Services platforms, application development suites, and management tools will expand from $380 million in 2001 to over $15.5 billion in 2005.
Samson predicts that in the next few years, thanks to Web Services alone, leaner staffs will be required for order processing, accounting, billing and accounts receivable, shipping, customer service, and purchasing. Middle management, already squeezed, will feel more pressure as the need for supervision wanes. Within two or three years, the human impact will start to be felt in large companies, he predicts. Within six to twelve years, Web Services and other electronic smarts will have infiltrated smaller companies, and job dislocation could reach critical levels. Since smart tech applies to all organizations and uses the global Internet, the impact will be global. Although nations rich in programming talent, such as India, may benefit from developing smart-tech applications for corporate customers, more jobs will be lost than gained. Third-world nations seeking higher employment through industrialization will see their plans challenged.
"Think of millions
of people feeling rejected, scared about the future, maybe desperate. Thats
a recipe for all sorts of social backlash." Three knee-jerk reactions are
likely, he says:
In the past, new white-collar jobs have always appeared to replace obsolete manual or routine ones. Today, white-collar work is the very kind being taken over by smart tech. Whats left? Where will the new human occupations come from?
In The Human Edge, Samson distinguishes between two kinds of mental functions: one performed best by computers; the other, by people. "We still have an edge," he asserts, "if only we focus on our unique human attributes." He says the solution is to reject mindless downsizing and mindless rehiring in favor of a creative restructuring of business, economics, and the very concept of work. This approach would generate new employment based on skills and qualities that fundamentally set us apart from even the smartest electronics. He challenges companies like IBM and Microsoft - which market Web Services creation tools - to lead the way.
The current practice of cutting employees to cut costs "makes micro sense and macro nonsense," he points out. "Business doesnt work without the consumer, but we seem to forget that employee and consumer are the same person. Business is becoming a crazed street vendor and holdup man rolled into one, pointing a gun at the employee-consumer and saying, Give me your money now buy my stuff."
"Weve got to do something about this now," he warns. "In the past weve clearly seen problems like this only in the rear-view mirror, and acted only after the damage was done. We cant do that now. If we let the human time bomb explode, we wont have many options." In his book, Samson challenges people in business, government, education, and the media, as well as the general public, to come up with specific ideas and solutions within the human-centered strategy. "A new future of full employment will take a lot of fresh thinking, and, yes, new technology, people-friendly technology." He invites input. Write firstname.lastname@example.org.
Smart tech could be "incredibly empowering or tragically disruptive, depending on how we deploy it and adjust to it," he says. "Unfortunately the current trend is to replace people with agile, interconnected systems that leave more and more of us on the sidelines. Even if we escape violent backlash, we could end up in a world of chattering e-commerce that all but runs itself, making people powerless and irrelevant. Instead of Big Brother, we will have Big Computer."
Samson, Director of EraNova Institute, Mountain Lakes, NJ, has been a consultant to IBM, AT&T, Cisco and others. His published books include The Mind Builder, The Language Ladder, Problem Solving Improvement, and Creative Analysis (with Albert Upton).