Most jobs today are scoped in such a way they’ll be easily replaced by artificial intelligence. I remember being slightly nauseous when I learned that 60% of US jobs and 80% of global jobs require zero decision-making, judgment, or creativity. Zero. It’s shocking to think of. But then look at an everyday experience of interacting with checkout clerk. It’s almost animatronic: the steps of greet, move items along the conveyor belt, processing payment in the same routine steps, putting the receipt in the bag and then turning to the next customer, to repeat the exact steps. If there is an anomaly, everything slows down as the exception is managed. It’s as if a machine conveyor belt has a glitch. Neither the person doing the work nor the people receiving the work product are especially pleased by this exchange. It is transactional. And yet 60% of US jobs and 80% of global jobs are DESIGNED this way. Optimized for this outcome.
The question isn’t if these jobs will be replaced, but when. And sooner is more likely than later.
And, this gives us both an opportunity and a challenge. The challenge is obvious. But is the opportunity?
We can look to another historical shift created by technology to imagine what it could be. There was a time when an artist’s role was to record visually as close to reality as was humanly possible. Then came photographic tools, starting in the 1820s and coming to full fruition by 1839. Photography could then record visual data near-perfectly, leaving the worker to wonder, was there a role left for him? It forced a change, to find a new way to be. After all, there was no way the people could compete with the machinery, so then the question was… could they reimagine what was possible, to then concern themselves with issues such as the effects of light, the relationships of color, and the fundamental character of form and mass. Artists such as Cezanne were born into this period, now known for selecting, intensifying, even abstracting the view which was before his eyes. He described it this way. “A painter is revealing something which no one has ever seen before and translates it into the absolute concepts of painting. That is, into something other than reality.”
The technology of photography shifted people from aiming to the same thing, ever so slightly better than one another, to do what only each person could. AI could do the same thing for work, where work changes from commoditizing humans into abstract roles to centering on doing what only each human can contribute. The opportunity would be that we leaders shift from commoditizing humans to centering on humanity. It could be the era of Onlyness. And if this path happens, it will unlock a set of talent and capacity we’ve yet to tap.
People ask me all the time what the future of work will be. I think we could go in either direction: where work will be animatronic and people are competing with machines, or it will be deeply human. The real question is what will we each do. No one came along to painters and said, hey maybe start changing. The artists themselves could see what was happening and found a new way to be. Change happens because someone changes. What will your change be in the face of AI?