So. We’re in the midst of peak AI-angst when every journalist worth her salt is rushing to write articles about how AI is going to decimate the job market and will cause huge societal damage. Well, apart from all the AI journalists who are rushing to talk about how AI is fantastic and will do everything from finding a cure for cancer to ensuring that everyone can live out their days sitting on the beach sipping cool drinks.

Alongside the journalists, PR folks are obviously also keen to jump on the bandwagon and so it was the other day when I received a pitch from one vendor doing sales automation software. This vendor suggested that business automation platforms generally (and, one assumes, their own platform more specifically) will provide a huge boon to society as they will remove “busywork” from sales team and thereby (and here’s the important part) improving the mental health of employees. Not leaving it there, this company went on to let me know that their platform is likely to result in workers with “happier interactions with their spouses, children, co-workers, and bosses.”

And, one assumes, a cure for cancer at the same time.

The company went on to clarify that the specific issues that AI is likely to solve for workers include:

  • Relationship problems
  • Obesity
  • Panic attacks
  • Suicidal tendencies

The reason for the connection between white-collar workers and these ailments? Simply that “the life of a typical white-collar worker is scary. Half of their workday is spent doing dull, Dilbert-style soul-crushing work.”

The method (kind of) to their madness

So, how did this company arrive at this position? Basically, they created what they call the “drudgery index” which sets a metric around low-value human-performed tasks which can be replaced by AI. The gotcha! is, of course, that the company provides the platform to enable all this automation. Their thesis is that people who have less mundane jobs report higher levels of job-satisfaction and better mental health while those who perform mundane tasks have poorer mental health.

The company then jumps into making the logical fallacy that:

Workers who perform mundane tasks have poor mental health

Workers who have less drudgery in their jobs have better mental health

Therefore, less drudgery in ones job leads to better mental health

Beware the fallacy

Viewing this company’s fallacy at face value it doesn’t take a genius to question the logic. And in questioning, they’re fairly likely to further wonder whether removing meaningful, albeit mundane, jobs from those with poor mental health won’t, in fact, lead to the exact opposite result – that is, those who had poor mental health before will suffer even greater troughs of despair as their status as productive individuals is further eroded?

Of course, the basis for conflating a reduction of mundane tasks with happier employees comes from the often questioned suggestion that all of these process workers will suddenly wake up and have screed of hugely positive, affirming and valuable work to do. As if someone who has spent a lifetime processing pieces of paper from tray A to tray B will, in the blink of an eye, become a research scientist finding cures for cancer or some other equally awe-inspiring job.

This is a fatuous suggestion and, while automation will indeed raise the aggregate “importance” of work being performed, it will do so generally at the expense of the total number of jobs and the livelihoods of those employees being automated out of existence. That is to say, while net job importance and satisfaction may go up, this ignores the individual impacts and costs.

Those lamp lighters again

We all know that the advent of electricity meant that an entire profession, that of municipal lamp-lighters was, in an instant, rendered unnecessary. But their situation is not analogous with that of today’s process workers. All those recently unemployed lamplighters had a myriad of opportunities they could take advantage of as the total number of low-skilled and mundane jobs stayed roughly the same. Many a lamp-lighter overnight moved into becoming an installer of electrical cables or similar.

Today’s situation is different. The impacts of Adam Smith and Frederic Winslow Taylor’s hyper-focus on specialization and efficiency has meant that entire swathes of employees perform one process in isolations and have little aptitude for moving beyond that. Whereas lamp lighting was a primarily dexterous skill that could be applied to a myriad of other tasks, those with a decades-long history of filing expense claims (for example) are arguably less likely to pick up the emergent vocations of today (although there may be a number of form-filers turned software developers who could prove me wrong).

Semantics and spin, or a dangerous indication of Silicon Valley’s blind spot

One could be forgiven for suggesting that this is a simple case of a PR company and marketing team getting excited and not being sufficiently savvy to realize the optics of the campaign. Others might suggest that it actually shows a very real ignorance on the part of the tech industry to the realities on the field. The fact of the matter is that the neatly packaged “we’ll all just do higher value work” answer to the question about AI-powered job displacement simply doesn’t cut it and ignored the reality for many (most?) workers.

While it may very well be the case that many survey respondents reported an antipathy towards their day-to-day mundane tasks, something tells me that the genuine option, a future where they are rendered redundant by technology, is less palatable.

Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

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