Large companies like Amazon, Chipotle, McDonald’s, and Nike are already starting to replace their human workers with machines. The fear surrounding the robot takeover seems to be growing with each year. The focus is typically on low-end jobs, though job displacement usually depends more on the type of job or industry. Jobs like telemarketing, tax preparation, data entry, and insurance underwriting are among the most likely to be replaced by machines or software, and to some degree, it’s already in progress.
Now it seems management could be the next responsibility we pass over to computers.
iCEO, a software prototype designed to test whether high-level management can be automated, was launched recently with encouraging initial results. In a 2015 article in Harvard Business Review, Devin Fidler of the non-profit group Institute for the Future outlined what iCEO can teach us about the future of the job world, and specifically, the future of the management structure in the corporate world.
On a base level, the virtual management system automates complex work by dividing it up and assigning out small individual tasks. The creators of the program decided to run experiments to see how far the software could be pushed into traditionally human territory. In the first real test of the software program’s higher-level abilities, iCEO oversaw the completion of a 124-page report in just weeks, when it would have taken months via a traditional management-employee structure.
The quality of iCEO’s work was as impressive as its speed, and the computer program required little human intervention to get the job done. While the software is still rudimentary, in a year or two, the technology could likely be applied to a number of industries. iCEO has already dabbled in sales, quality assurance, and hiring. It’s also capable of operating Amazon’s Mechanical Turk micro-work platform, which many corporations already use. When it comes to management, however, many corporate executives fancy themselves immune to the robot takeover. Fidler claims they have a rude awakening coming.
“Executives tend to assume that their underlings will bear the main brunt of changes to the future of work, while their own positions are immune. They are incorrect,” Fidler writes. “The same cost/benefit analyses performed by shareholders against line workers and office managers will soon be applied to executives and their generous salaries.”
Others have argued that while management will be augmented quite successfully by machine intelligence, software can’t entirely replace human managers, at least not in the next decade or so. Machines are a valuable resource for background information, but according to Tyler Cowen, economist and author of Average is Over, strategy in the hands of a machine is something that’s very far off in the future. In a 2013 interview in Harvard Business Review, Cowen addressed the human element of management, which some would say is close to irreplaceable. A manager’s primary role will likely shift to translating for machines, Cowen claims, predicting that professors and teachers will one day be more like coaches or tutors, helping to guide students in their coursework rather than actually teaching.
When questioned on the extent that software will encroach on the responsibilities of managers, Cowen responded:
“If it’s just measuring how hard people work, how long they’re at their desks, how good a job they do, how good a doctor or a salesman is adjusting for quality of customer, there’s a huge role there for software. But to actually replace managers, for the most part I don’t see that. At least not for the time horizon I’m writing about, 10 to 20 years out.”
Whether we start seeing managers and executives disappearing or merely shifting and sharing their duties, the reality of coming change can’t be ignored. In the corporate world, the evolution of technology in the workplace will be especially interesting, as CEOs and other high-powered executives will increasingly be forced to justify their worth — and their salaries. At least, one can hope.