The Human Defense Against Robots (at Work)

New studies suggest humans may have a diminishing role—unless they are agile.



The math is not very pretty. In the first four months of this year, US retailers shed some 27,000 jobs, as more people shop online or use self-service options at brick-and-mortar stores. That’s 225 jobs per day, wiped out by automation. 

A recent Bloomberg article and a host of studies have painted a grim picture for what is already happening—faster than most realize—in the age of automation and artificial intelligence. But the recent attention only raises a debate over whether humans could actually become even more valuable in the workforce, as partners with machines. The only catch: They’ll need to develop more agility skills. 

Indeed, learning agility, the ability to develop new skills and perform in times of change and uncertainty, may prove to be critical for navigating the rise of the robots. “If you remain curious, you will probably be able to adapt. If you’re sitting behind your computer moaning, if you don’t develop yourself, there’s a big risk you’ll be out of the race,” says Eric van Zelm, a senior client partner with Korn Ferry Hay Group. 

A recent study by commissioned by Korn Ferry found that there are two reasons the value of human capital far outweighs that of technology. For one, people don’t have just one purpose; their skills and potential can be continually shaped. Their value also appreciates as they develop more knowledge, experience and seniority. Machines, on the other hand, generally have a defined purpose and depreciate with time. Unfortunately, many businesses don’t see it this way yet: 67% of CEOs say they believe technology creates more value than human capital, according to another study by Korn Ferry.

While being agile might mean expanding your skill set, it won’t necessarily mean having to become a high-level coding wizard. In fact, van Zelm predicts that workplace technology will get, well, less technical. For example, soon you might be able to instruct a computer to build tools or software simply through voice commands. That will open doors for people who perhaps haven’t spent their lives as developers.

Most futurists say the real sweet spot for humans will be using AI in conjunction with their own interpretations and observations to create and market products and services that resonate with consumers. For example, when researchers last year decided to let a piece of software build the optimal race-car chassis, the end result was functional but looked like an “alien skeleton.” Since humans are—and may always be—the end users, the researchers knew the look and feel would be important. That’s why they left it to humans to “make a ‘cover’ that meets whatever aesthetic criteria is important.”

Robots may be able to crunch data better and faster, and spot important trends, but they can only see as far as their algorithms. And in a world where aesthetics and usability matter, experts say, that’s an important limitation.