Bringing a Group to SB'24? Explore Our Special Rates for 3 or More!

Organizational Change
The Irony of Happiness at Work in the Age of Automation

After my book, Hacking Happiness, was released last year, a lot of people got in touch wondering how they could help their employees get happier at work. My book focuses on how people should take a measure of their lives, utilizing emerging technology and positive psychology to increase their long-term wellbeing versus just their mood.

After my book, Hacking Happiness, was released last year, a lot of people got in touch wondering how they could help their employees get happier at work. My book focuses on how people should take a measure of their lives, utilizing emerging technology and positive psychology to increase their long-term wellbeing versus just their mood.

When anyone is genuinely interested in increasing employee happiness, I'm encouraged. But more often than not, people are primarily focused on how the benefits of positive psychology will increase people's productivity for the company versus how employee's lives could genuinely improve. Herein lies the sad irony of the happiness industry in regards to improving the future of work. While we ponder how increasing wellbeing will lead to greater productivity, big data and automation are decimating the human workforce. The aggressive drive to embrace Artificial Intelligence means we've chosen machines over ourselves to maximize productivity.

Multiple leading economists have pointed out how this age of automation is different than ones in the past, since AI is replacing jobs in multiple industries. It's not just farmers who will be out of jobs. Or blue collar workers. There's software being developed to replace managers, engineers, and certainly AI programmers (that's the tough part of creating evolutionary algorithms). The very nature of AI is to observe our behavior in an effort to increase business productivity. And by definition, humans in this model are temporary.

You may say, "But machines could never replace humans as...(insert job title here)." Musicians? There are dozens of AI systems copying famous composers or musicians to algorithmically create new music. Writers? Companies such as Narrative Science and multiple other programs replicate human journalists or fiction writers. What you're talking about here is not a machine's ability to do tasks related with these industries, but your lack of awareness that they already exist. Or your tastes: You may prefer human created music over algorithm created music —that's your choice — but it has absolutely nothing to do with the ability for AI to create the music.

Similarly, any CEO or Board of Directors in today's atmosphere of automation has no valid reason to choose humans over machines. If the organization's focus in on always increasing growth or productivity, humans will be replaced. That's it. We can argue semantics if you like, but it won't change the fact that we as a species are actively choosing to create the machines that are replacing us at work.

If this sounds bleak, I agree. But I've been arguing against GDP-driven economies and workplaces for years. So here are some solutions I believe can genuinely increase employee and human wellbeing today:

  • Accept the inevitability of absolute automation. If it's unrealistic to think companies around the world will reject the philosophy of growth-at-all-costs, assume automation is inevitable. Deep Learning and AI are not being designed to only replace certain societal roles. It's being designed to fully replicate humanity. This choice has been made. Fight it or accept the fact you're letting it happen.
  • Fight to control your personal data. The primary reason we all should be controlling our personal data is not about privacy but Intellectual Property. Would you walk around passing out documents containing your most intimate company IP? Do you randomly email strangers with patent applications? That's the equivalent of what we've been trained to do in the current data economy. We're told "privacy is dead" by the same tech companies paying billions of dollars to lobbyists every year keeping laws protecting our rights around personal data from being passed. In terms of automation, common practice today is that machines observe our behavior until they're ready to take over our jobs. It's the literal equivalent of training your successor. If we controlled our personal data, we'd be able to discern which of our skills was unique to us as humans and charge R&D fees over and above our salary to help provide for our families once we were fired.
  • Embrace Positive Psychology. The field of affective computing (where machines emulate human emotion to improve wellbeing) is a growing vertical with the promise of helping improve the lives of countless humans in the future. In Japan alone, where the senior population is massive, companion robots seem like an excellent solution to provide for their medical needs while also granting the comfort of perceived interaction. However, after years of studying the science of positive psychology, my belief is you can't automate human wellbeing. You can utilize emerging or existing technology to help automate aspects of improving wellbeing, but you can't have a machine be grateful for you. You can't experience the benefits of altruism by having your iPhone automate acts of kindness. In this sense, at least for today, positive psychology belongs to the realm of humanity. I'd love for companies to embrace its tenets to grow employee wellbeing in light of maximizing global happiness. But the way things stand now, the primary reason to accelerate the adoption of positive psychology is to give people tools to find a sense of purpose once automation renders them unemployed.

Be Happy, You're Human.

We're at a crossroads in human history. We're looking to machines, Deep Learning, and Big Data to maximize productivity in the workforce while still hoping humans can play an active, long-term role in that process. That's like asking me to help train your fastest human runner at work for a race with the company's new Lamborghini. Pick your own metaphor, but while we fiddle with people's happiness buttons hoping to eke out "quantified ROI," management's installed the tech that's spiking productivity in the server room. Theirs goes to 11.

There's also the notion that we'll work alongside machines in the future. I agree with Martin Ford, author of the excellent book, Rise of the Robots, on this issue — the only reason robots will work with us is to watch what we're doing on the road to replacing our jobs. Sound unrealistic? Check out Amazon's Picking Challenge contest for a view of the future when the priority is on increased profitability versus people. In warehouses, the only reason Kiva robots haven't replaced all humans is because we have thumbs and can stand on our tiptoes. Once those engineering problems are solved, no more humans in those roles. This is a universal precedent for the model of the modern workforce. We can fear it, lament it, or reject it.

Not the technology, mind you — reject the paradigm that says we have to increase productivity at all costs, or be willing to pay the cost with your job. And the future of humanity at work.

This post first appeared on LinkedIn on May 14, 2015.