John Hagel: Rethinking Race Against the Machines

John Hagel: Race Against The Machine is a very interesting book.  It’s gotten a lot of popularity because it’s targeting an issue that is front and center for a lot of people in the United States and around the world, namely the issue of jobs creation and unemployment.  Essentially, the thesis of the book – the authors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee make the point that their goal is to introduce technology as a key engine of the changes that we’re looking at in terms of unemployment and job creation.  

So the book really focuses very heavily on the pace of technology innovation, at one level highlighting the exponential improvement in price and performance of technologies, but then focuses on the impact that has in terms of increasingly taking away jobs through automation, that more and more jobs, jobs that we thought were going to be immune from automation, are increasingly becoming vulnerable to automation because of the power of technology.

At that level, I think it’s a very powerful book.  Technology is advancing at a very rapid pace and it is becoming more and more able to take over activities that we, as humans, have been performing.  I think the issue is, though, by framing the challenge as a technology challenge, what they miss is the reason why these jobs are so vulnerable to technology. 

Essentially, if you step back and look at what the modern corporation is and how it evolved, it evolved through a model that we describe as a “push model.”  Basically, it has to do with developing forecasts and predictions and then making sure that the right people are in the right place at the right time and following tightly scripted activities to respond to that demand.

In stepping back from that, that’s a formula for automation.  If you have tightly scripted jobs that are highly standardized where there’s no room for individual initiative or creativity, machines by and large can do those kinds of activities much better than human beings.  They’re much more predictable.  They’re much more reliable.  We as human beings have flaws.  We tend to get distracted.  We tend to go off into unexpected areas.  

So I think that the real reason that we have such an issue in terms of unemployment and job loss through automation is that we’ve crafted these jobs exactly so that they would be vulnerable to automation.  We’ve put kind of a bull’s eye target on workers around the United States and around the world and said, “Come after me.  Shoot me.  I’m the target for automation.”  Technology’s not the root cause.  Technology is simply going after the target that’s been put on the screen.

The root cause is how we’ve defined work in companies and that the opportunity now is to step back and say, “Is that the way we need work to be done?”  One of the issues is this formula for how work is conducted was developed in the last century, and it was based on a set of infrastructures and assumption of a stable environment that made it easy to define standardized highly-scripted work.

Now we’re in a world that’s more rapidly changing, more uncertainty, more of those extreme events that Taleb calls the "black swans" that make it really critical for us as individuals in the workplace to take much more initiative, to be constantly exercising creativity and imagination to respond to the unexpected events.  That’s a very different model of work.  It requires a very different way of organizing our institutions and a different set of work practices that are much harder to automate.

When you have that kind of imagination, creativity, trust-based relationships that are required to really address these hard problems, it makes it much less vulnerable to that kind of automation.  So my belief is that if you focus on that as the root cause, now the problem is not technology.  The problem is how do we innovate our institutions and our work practices so that we, in fact, can – the authors have a very nice phrase that they call rather than “race against the machines,” we ought to start “racing with the machine.” 

Unfortunately, I don’t think they developed that very well in the book.  They kind of offer it as a case for optimism at the very end without a lot of deep content, but the content I think about racing with the machine is stepping back and reassessing what are institutions for?  What kinds of work practices are required in order to pursue that institutional mission?  And in that context, I think you now are able to race with the machine.

Directed / Produced by

Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd


John Hagel says we have designed jobs in the U.S. that tend to be "tightly scripted," "highly standardized," that leave no room for "individual initiative or creativity." In short, these are the types of jobs that machines can perform much better at than human beings. That is how we have put a giant target sign on the backs of American workers, Hagel says.

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An organism found in dirt may lead to an anxiety vaccine, say scientists

Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.

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  • The finding builds on the hygiene hypothesis, first proposed in 1989.

Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.