February 27, 2017

The Future of Work: Hidden Figures and the Threat of Machines

Are humans about to be replaced?

By now you have probably heard of the movie Hidden Figures, an Academy Award Best Picture nominee released during the holidays that explores the stories of three black women working at NASA in the sixties.

While the story focuses largely on Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), I loved the subplot concerning Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer). It may be the most valuable and forward-thinking part of the movie as it offers a timely lesson to anyone wanting to equip themselves for the future.

In the movie Dorothy catches word of NASA’s purchase of a new IBM computer, and we are shown a growing menace as this room-filling monster is slowly installed. She knows her entire department is in danger of being replaced.

Dorothy could fret and despair about her future, but instead we get this short exchange:

“That IBM’s gonna put us all outta work.”
“What can we do?”
“Only one thing we can do – learn what we can, make ourselves valuable.” (Dorothy)

Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughan (Fox)

Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughan (Fox)

In the words of Darrel Hammond as Chris Matthews on SNL, “chatter’s revving up” about how robots are coming soon to steal away all of our jobs.

Actually, it is amazing how many articles have come out in the last month alone to discuss artificial intelligence, robots, and the automation of jobs – all of which may be seen as threats to rob humanity of purpose and dignity.

It is true that automation will force people – maybe most people eventually – to look for new jobs.

We could despair, but instead let’s affirm some truths:

  1. Humans have always created technology to improve life and make work easier.
  2. Technology allows more work to be accomplished by less people,* freeing others to pursue work they could not before.
  3. Technology usually creates a need for at least some jobs to service itself.

If the human race had given in to fear at the advent of every world-changing invention, we would all probably live in agrarian communities and spend our spare time still trying to not die from plagues.

In fact, thanks to the progress of technology, job opportunities exist now that could not have existed before in history. Five centuries ago, no farmer’s kid would have dreamt of being a marriage counselor when they grew up. There was also a distinct lack of music therapists and career coaches and children’s TV show puppeteers and data analysts and sneaker engineers and pet sitters.

We have good reason to expect that new jobs will come into being as a result of the progress we make. The future is still exciting.

So be assured that we humans are not going to lose our value. There will still be work for which only humans are best equipped.

As she’s portrayed in Hidden Figures, Dorothy Vaughan is a motivating example for us all. She takes the initiative to study the computer manual until she knows it well enough to teach it to her coworkers and saves her department from obsolescence.

In the face of intimidating, monumental change, these words are always good advice:

Learn what you can; make yourself valuable.

What skill are you learning now that will retain its value in the future?

*Conversely, allowing less work to be accomplished by more people might be the express purpose of trade unions.

Part 2 of The Future of Work coming soon!

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