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The Robots Are Coming for Your Job

Experts predict robots could replace close to two-thirds of American jobs in the next 25 years. Darden professor Edward Hess tells us how to outsmart them.

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Darden School of Business professor Edward D. Hess’ newest book, Learn or Die: Using Science to Build a Leading-Edge Learning Organization, focuses on what individuals and organizations must do to thrive amid environments characterized by uncertainty and ambiguity. Technology is a big driver of those changes—including robots, which are being bought more quickly and built more cheaply than ever before. His take: Big changes are coming with artificial intelligence, and we better be prepared.

Virginia Magazine: You set out to write a book about how businesses were going to have to bring more learning into their cultures and processes. But then major predictions about advanced technologies came into the picture. How have those two subjects collided?

Hess: After writing my book about the organizations of the future, what sort of places they need to be, and what kind of skills people will need to have to in order to thrive, The Second Machine Age by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee was published. It made the messages of my book that much more important and relevant. When you look at other data it’s just staggering: Close to two-thirds of the American workforce are at a high to medium risk of job destruction in the next 10 to 20 years because of advanced technology, namely, smart robots and artificial intelligence. The consensus of the technology experts is that knowledge workers [workers whose main capital is knowledge, who think rather than labor for a living] must excel at doing what technology won’t be able to do well—basically, complex critical thinking, innovation and high emotional engagement with other humans.

What will be the impact on American economy and society?

If we do nothing, the already hollowed-out middle class could be decimated. Income inequality will likely increase. We will have highly skilled, highly trained workers on one end, then people without many skills on the other. And doing the jobs many of them are doing now will be robots and smart machines. It’s happening now. Foxconn, which makes the iPhone, is reputed to be replacing a million workers with robots. What’s at stake for us is the American Dream.

What can be done?

People will need to constantly improve their game if they are going to survive and if America is to remain competitive. We need to focus on what computers can’t do. Businesses, schools—all of them should be focused on developing their workers’ and students’ critical and innovative thinking skills, creativity and emotional intelligence. Organizations will have to be places that are humanistic, where real egoless collaboration takes place. Leaders, managers and workers are going have to be willing to accept constant constructive feedback about their performance and to embrace continuous change. Candor and permission to speak freely will be a necessity and that requires a psychologically safe work environment. That will be a big change for lots of workplaces.

Are there places that are creating those environments now?

Yes. I think places like Intuit, Bridgewater Associates, and W.L. Gore are companies that are doing it now. They have leaders who walk the talk, who know they don’t have the best ideas all the time and are willing to listen and are accessible. They have cultures that foster learning, where people have permission to speak freely and where lots of feedback is given. They seek “the truth”—they are idea meritocracies in that they are data driven in the right ways. They see mistakes as learning opportunities. They all understand that operational excellence will be commoditized by technology, leaving innovation as the key differentiator.