What do you think of when you hear the word automation? Assembly lines? Robots? Or even more concerning, robots replacing humans and taking over our tasks.

None of this is wrong, per se, but we like to add another word when we think about automation: productive. For us, automation is all about giving humans superhero capes. We think about it as a way for productive automated work technologies to amplify humanness and economic productivity. Or, instead of focusing on how automation replaces humans, honing in on how it can improve our work.

Take, for example, a quality check in a bakery production line. A computer scans the belt and identifies which buns don’t look standard. It then sends this feedback to a human, who checks the bun in question and then decides whether the bun should stay on the belt or be discarded. In other words, the two are working together, capitalizing on and amplifying each of their strengths.

At People Rocket, we wear many hats, and in our various roles as lecturers at universities or designers, we try to bring in this frame of productive automation. To break it down into more easily digestible parts, we conceive of productive automation as having four central rules.

Making productive automation work:

  1. Start with n=1: one human in one context. How do we improve their productivity?
  2. Decision making and judgment stays with the human. (Robots need not apply!)
  3. Decrease time spent in negative work activities: reduce human time on tasks not best suited to them. Technology must amplify human characteristics. This includes social emotional skills, interpersonal skills, and cognitive dispositions.
  4. Goal: increase quality and quantity of output.

Historically, we’ve put a premium on automation increasing efficiency. But we don’t think efficiency is always the right goal. We’d like to make a case for making individual humans more productive. Opportunities for efficiency are, by its very nature, limited. Opportunities for amplifying the abilities of humans are infinite.

Seeing the utility of this frame in a real-world example can be pretty straightforward.

Take Walmart. The retail giant adopted the use of robots to help check inventory on some of its stores’ shelves. The idea, according to the Wall Street Journal, was that robots could bring down costs while increasing sales. In other words, increase efficiency. But now Walmart has decided to return to human labor after finding that they could do the job just as well.  

This doesn’t mean the retailer is ridding itself of robots or tech. That’s why we think this example is a perfect representation of how we can make humans more productive alongside automation to propel us forward. Rather than simply assume that the robots would do a better job than humans, Walmart saw that each could be used in their own ways, capitalizing on their individual strengths.

Productive automation can also make existing jobs even better. Corporations like Walmart, McDonald's, Amazon, Target, and other supply chains sometimes struggle to find people to do certain, less desirable jobs, like working in a freezer room or lifting heavy objects. If we amplify the human component and automate away these less desirable aspects, we can make the remaining tasks more appealing for humans.

More broadly, the end goal doesn’t have to be maximizing efficiency and replacing humans. Robots and humans can be peers or colleagues. We can amplify each other’s strengths and assets. This can take many forms: anything from using machines for lifting heavy objects or processing large amounts of data, or relying on humans for creative thinking or decision making.

Ultimately, it’s not written in stone that automation will define the future of work. Our design choices will define what the future looks like. And we think there’s a pretty good case for robots and mankind to work together—not against each other.

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