One of the biggest failed promises that has been repeatedly used to sell technology to users throughout history is that “this technology will save you time!” Now, with fears of artificial intelligence and automation making huge numbers of traditional jobs redundant, this fear is raising new questions. If we really had saved time with previous technologies, then wouldn’t our lives be less stressful now than they are? Shouldn’t we have more free time than we evidently do? If we have saved time with previous technologies, then what have we done with that time? And if we are learning anything from history, then what will our lives look like in the future as automation and AI have an impact.
Good technologies and systems that are automated—or that are constantly learning—are able to deal very efficiently with specific tasks. A human being’s job is the sum of various tasks, so it stands to reason that, as we lose a few tasks to the robots, it should free up time for us to do a better job with the rest of our role. Time saved doing a routine task should be used in strategy, discernment, and foresight.
But is this actually being implemented well in the electronics and software that we deal with on a daily basis—and is this artificial intelligence really something that engineers and designers should implement in their projects?
How Much Time Are We Really Saving?
Type anything into Google, and, as a bonus to the pages of information before you, Google lets you know just how quickly it produced these results. Two hundred and fifty thousand results in 0.42 seconds is certainly an astronomical time-saver in terms of accessing information, but the result is that a user will now wade through many more articles than we would have in days prior to the effectiveness of modern search engines. The time spent on reading, clicking through to related articles, meandering down and retracing our steps from online rabbit holes, and worrying about our presentation not being broad enough because we are ignoring so much information means that more time is spent on a project of this nature than would have been the case before. Undoubtedly, the results are better and more comprehensive, but the time saved on the front end has been added to the in-depth part of a project.
Artificial intelligence is just a complex algorithm running off a set of instructions. It searches information in the field it has been instructed to explore, tests scenarios based on parameters that have been coded, and produces actions or results based on what it has learned. But it cannot go beyond that to take a task to the next stage.
Fixing a Problem That We Initially Created
For example, smart response technology has been included in some correspondence, including Google emails and some social media platforms. Depending on the message that comes through, a chatbot will automatically provide certain answers or responses, and the mail or social media sites will suggest quick responses to the user. When we see a set of three options to respond to an email, it’s very easy—and time-saving—to click on the “Okay, thanks” response and be done with that email. AI has just saved us time.
But the use of time-saving tools in social media, multiple email accounts, and chat functionality on websites are necessary because those very same tools have created a new workload that we never had to deal with before. It is so much quicker to communicate via email than post, but we receive a magnitude of more electronic mail than any one of us ever would have received from the mailman. Time-saving devices in this arena only help us to keep our heads above water when it comes to the volume of communication we are dealing with.
And each communication holds the opportunity for more work than the AI can cope with. Every “Okay, thanks” response should be compared to the emails and communication that require a little more research, consideration, and delivery of actual results, all of which are beyond the scope of any AI. So we have increased our workload, automated to make it easier, increased the volume because we have not made it easier to communicate, and ended up with much more work than anyone worker would have had to deal with before automation in the first place.
How Did We Get Here?
In some communities, long work hours are a badge of honour; people brag about how busy they are. But there are pockets of resistance to this always-on mentality. The right to disconnect is a concept that has now spread to multiple countries and companies, and it is more than just being adopted voluntarily by some companies—it’s being entrenched in law. While some people will voluntarily constantly hustle for business, a company cannot expect their employees to constantly be on-call to respond to communications after hours, over weekends, and on holidays.
Of course, the rise of automation also creates a desirable niche market where the input of human labour is actually seen as the unique selling proposition or value of the product. Handmade items, small wineries, and craft beers could all be produced faster, more efficiently, and cheaper with automation systems that are readily available, but some consumers will go out of their way to purchase handcrafted, artisanal products—for more than an equivalent mass produced product would cost.
So is it even worth investing so much time and effort into automated prototypes and tools when people may not even benefit from them in the long run? Are these automation products fulfilling the promise they intended in the first place?
We still have not reached the promised utopia where people can work for a few scant hours a week and then rest in leisure and artistic pursuits—all while a staff of robots attends to every necessary work function. Instead, it seems that we are packing more work into the same amount of hours, while automation and AI help us to become more efficient and busier human workers.
Engineers, how can we solve this conundrum? Are there products and designs that somehow toe the line between truly saving time and just over-optimizing? It will be interesting to see how our automatic email replies and the like evolve—and how our workflow follows suit.