Technology Has Created an Often-Overlooked Business and Investment Priority
Pressure is building on CEOs and other business leaders to eliminate human work and replace it with artificial intelligence, robotics, and other technology. Cost-cutting is the obvious and dominant rationale, but smart investors should see a more important goal beyond that kind of short-term thinking: shared prosperity.
The elimination of human work due to technology is pervasive. Those of us who travel for business have gotten used to using smartphone apps to book and check-in to flights and hotel rooms, bypassing human agents and clerks. Soon it may be common to order and pick up dinner without seeing a human face. Love it or hate it, automation can create new products and efficiencies, and whole new industries. But a report from the Aspen Institute highlights the dark underside for vulnerable workers who are displaced by deeper, faster, broader workplace disruption.
The report proposes solutions to maintain prosperity, starting with encouraging employers to lead a human-centric approach to automation. Investors and corporate boards must lead the way as they have historically stepped up to accept or impose new norms in the definition of work, for example, ending child labor and eliminating racial and gender barriers.
In my book “Startups & the Tech Revolution” I concluded that businesses alone cannot prepare our society for the coming economic disruption because the government, the educational establishment, and individual initiative also play a role. But a few big investment companies could have a huge impact. The biggest investor, BlackRock, has advocated for corporate social responsibility, saying it judges companies based on their engagement, for example, in climate risk.
Now the challenge we must prioritize is preserving a system in which workers can earn a good living, to keep the economy from being destroyed. Every time technology provides an opportunity to replace or redefine a job, business leaders and investors must keep in mind the 4 Rs I have been writing about: RETHINK what we value as a society, RETRAIN people continually through their lives, REDUCE the workweek, and REDISTRIBUTE the gains from the tech age.
Where retraining happens—at work, online, in a community college, in an apprentice program—is limited only by our imaginations. Creating new career pathways and routes to prosperity will require serious efforts with sustainable funding tied to measurable success. We know what failure looks like: old factory towns hollowed out, people homeless or struggling, and we tend to avert our eyes at the misery. It’s time to focus on the disruption as an opportunity to shape the 21st-century workforce we deserve.