Book Review: Only Humans Need Apply by Thomas H. Davenport and Julia Kirby


"I don't want to work. I just want to bang on the drum all day." — Todd Rundgren

They say that robots are coming to take our jobs. At Autodesk, we are hoping to help create new industries to mitigate the negative effects of the changing work environment. Just as people moved to factories when agricultural tools (e.g., tractors) reduced the need for farm workers, what will people do in the future? So, what does the future of work hold for us? They say robots are coming for us. At Autodesk, we believe that robots are coming for us. Instead of supplanting us, robots and humans will work side by side. Machine learning and artificial intelligence will help us achieve what we want to achieve. We make software that helps work get done because Autodesk makes software for people who make things. If you’re creating a high-performance car, a towering skyscraper, a smartphone, or a great film, your work can be aided by Autodesk applications and services. That's true now and will remain true in the future.

As part of considering Autodesk's role in the future of work, I read Only Humans Need Apply by Thomas H. Davenport and Julia Kirby. One of my favorite blogs is called Indexed. Indexed author, Jessica Hagy, displays thought provoking ideas on index cards.

Visit her site

As I have done for book reviews before (FLOW, Codermetrics, Shutting Up, The Infinite Resource, High-Tech, High-Touch Customer Service, SPIN Sucks), I thought I'd once again try my hand at being a Jessica Hagy by providing an index card for each chapter of Only Humans Need Apply. Hopefully, it's interesting in a unique way.

Here are some key concepts from the book.

  1. Introduction


    "[Knowledge workers are] redefining what it means to be more capable than computers and doubling down on their very human strengths. ...these are not superhumans [but are] normal people who like their work and bring something special to it." [page 8]

  2. Are Computers Coming After Your Job?


    " they increasingly work with machines, people can step up, step aside, step in, step narrowly, or step forward." [page 31]

  3. Just How Smart Are Smart Machines?


    "[Artificial Intelligence systems like] Amelia, Digital Reasoning, and Watson all use similar components, including Language classification, Entity extraction, Relationship extraction, Fact extraction, Relationship graph, and Trade-off analytics... Other systems that handle text take a 'computational linguistics' approach and focus on understanding the underlying grammatical structures of sentences and paragraphs." [page 45]

  4. Don't Automate, Augment


    "The reason people hate automation is that it involves someone in a managerial position spotting a shortcoming or limitation in employees, or simply a weakness relative to machine performance, and then punishing them for that weakness. Punishment usually takes the form of workforce reduction or pay reduction in real terms... Augmentation, by contrast, spots the human weakness or limitation and makes it for up — we might say accommodates it — without pain to the worker." [pages 61-62]

  5. Stepping Up


    "Stepping up is moving up above automated systems to develop more big picture insights and decisions that are too unstructured and sweeping for computers or robots to be able to make." ...People who step up identify and evaluate automation opportunities, determine which tasks will be done by computer/which tasks by humans, and monitor the results of revised work arrangements over time and notice if the world has changed but systems haven't. [pages 76-77,94]

  6. Stepping Aside


    "Stepping aside is moving to a type of non-decision-oriented work that computers aren't good at, such as selling, motivating people, or describing in straightforward terms the decisions that computers have made. ...many stepping aside jobs will center on knowledge work that requires creativity, courage, and conviction. Ethics, emotions, and integrity. Taste, vision, and the ability to inspire." [pages 77,111]

  7. Stepping In


    "Stepping in is engaging with the computer system's automated decisions to understand, monitor, and improve them... It's like the people in IT speak blue, the people in business speak red, but we need people who can speak purple." [pages 77,131]

  8. Stepping Narrowly


    "Stepping narrowly is finding a specialty area within a profession that is so narrow that no one is attempting to automate it and it might never be economical to do so... The Internet has revolutionized the process of publicizing and finding deeper expertise. If you're a jack-of-one-trade, Internet connectivity and usage not only helps you deepen your expertise; it also connects you to customers and markets for it. Google search is God's gift to the narrow-stepper." [pages 77,161]

  9. Stepping Forward


    "Stepping forward is developing new systems and technology that support intelligent decisions and actions in a particular domain... The step-forward category probably won't replace all of the jobs eliminated because of automation, but it will be a fast-growing and important segment of the tech economy... One of the problems with automated systems in the past has been that they have been difficult to understand and modify... Increasingly, users of these systems... won't trust the results if they don't know what went into them." [pages 77,191-192]

  10. How You'll Manage Augmentation


    "The process might start as they recognize the self-defeating nature of replacing people with machines. ...opting for an automation-oriented strategy means entering yourself in a race toward the zero-margin reality of commoditized work. If you're using automation to do the same things your people were doing, only faster, chances are good that your competitors will follow suit. And vendors and consultants will be only too happy to provide automated solutions to the entire industry. You will end up offering the same products and services as your competitors Your costs will go down, but so will everybody else's. Sooner or later someone will decide that they can pass some of the savings along to customers, and everyone's profits will fall." [pages 204-205]

  11. Utopia or Dystopia? How Society Must Adapt to Smart Machines


    "Pew asked 1,986 experts, including research scientists, business leaders, journalists, and technology developers, whether they believed AI and robotics will have displaced more jobs than they have created by 2025. Respondents were almost evenly split, with the optimists slightly edging out the pessimists, 52 to 48 percent." [page 226

This book was an easy read. Each chapter is focused on a specific aspect of the future of work and allows the reader to absorb the information one chunk at a time. It offers an optimistic outlook for the future of work that is convincing and inspiring. The future is not paved with unemployed humans who are slaves to their robot overlords but augmented humans who can do more than they ever could before. Autodesk software will be a part of that. We've got your back.

Work study is alive in the lab.