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The Potential Perils of Automation

If, like me, you’ve recently binge-watched the British television series Black Mirror, you may find yourself dwelling on the dystopian dark side of technology. Plenty of real-world headlines contribute to the cause; most recently, it’s the worry that smart TVs are eavesdropping on your private conversations and reporting sensitive information to third parties.

Is there inevitably a price tag attached to our modern conveniences?

A recent Wall Street Journal article argued in the affirmative, singling out automation for some sharp criticism. By teaching our software and our devices to do so much, the article argues, we deprive ourselves of the ability to do much of anything.

In my response below, I argue that automation is actually helping us be smarter in our day-to-day—but only when the right strategies and solutions are in place.

The following post originally appeared on the Central Desktop blog.

 

What is technology doing to our brains?

This is a question that’s plagued people (and inspired sci-fi writers) as long as we’ve been making technological advancements. Would the printing press destroy our ability to rely on speech and memory? Would Victrolas stop people from enjoying live music?

Pundits have been arguing about the effects of the internet for years. By having infinite knowledge always at our fingertips, are we losing the need to actually retain that knowledge? For some people, this leveled playing field is changing their self-identity; gone are the days when I was That Guy who routinely fielded “What’s the name of this song?” calls from his friends. Thanks a lot, Shazam and/or aging friends who don’t go to bars as often anymore.

A few months ago, Nicholas Carr wrote a WSJ article that has stuck with me. The premise: in our rush to automate as much as possible, we’re dumbing ourselves down, losing critical professional skills, and basically authoring our own demise and irrelevance.

To think of the photo above: in a future in which our toast is sliced, toasted, buttered and jellied for us, what will become of us when this automatic process fails? With our toast-making skills atrophied, will we poke around foolishly with our knives? And if the automated process never fails, does it really matter that we don’t know how to make our own toast anymore?

Human-centered automation vs. tech-centered automation

In the workplace, automation isn’t (or shouldn’t be) about letting you kick back while a robot Roombas away your entire workload. Instead, the goal is to free up your team to focus on their actual job descriptions rather than be bogged down with tedious administrative work.

As Blue Corona’s Katelyn McKinley explained in Business News Daily, her marketing firm uses Central Desktop to automate tasks that help the company serve its clients.

“When new clients sign on, a project is created from a template that has all of the company’s standard kickoff milestones and tasks. These include pinging the sales rep to upload the signed contract for the entire team to view, the billing department to create the first invoice, and the account manager to schedule a kickoff call and fill out a series of client intake documents that are then shared with the rest of the account team.”

This level of automation doesn’t get the account manager out of making the call; it’s not a substitute for doing the work or cultivating a human-to-human relationship.

It’s the sort of balance that makes skeptics like Carr feel more hopeful.

“Right now, the dominant approach is what’s called ‘technology-centered automation,’ the goal of which is to hand over as much work and responsibility to computers as possible,” he told PBS. “A better approach, I think, is ‘human-centered automation,’ which views the person and the computer as being partners. The software is programmed to keep the human deeply engaged in the work rather than cut off from the work.”

“A lot of people theorize that more automation means we will work less and see improved productivity,” Jacob Morgan told us last year. “We’ll be able to focus on the things we want to work on, and leave the boring tasks to the robots.”

Is automation making us dumber? My experiences offer a resounding “No” in response, but those experiences have been almost entirely with organizations thinking in terms of human-centered automation. If you’ve had a different experience—if you’ve seen the Black Mirror side of automation up close—I’d love to hear your story, too.

Looking for more insights from the Central Desktop team, as well as experts at AirWatch by VMWare, Frost & Sullivan and more? Download PGi’s latest eBook: The Future of Business Collaboration 2015 Edition.

 

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