Everyone, it seems, is talking about automation and artificial intelligence these days. The relentless cry is that “it is going to change our world”. I agree that this is going to occur. But what we don’t want to forget is that, over the last decade or more it has already happened, and we’ve barely seemed to notice.

That is because the implementation of new technologies, despite the “shock and awe” nature of their capabilities, is a much more gradual and natural process than we envision in our dire warnings. The coming wave of AI and robotics will not be undertaken with a marching army of cyborgs demanding you clear your cubicle, but more likely as measured increments in the name of efficiency and cost control. And as indicated, this process is already well underway.

I suppose I should mention how I got to this topic.

Several weeks ago I took a tumble and injured my left hand. It was six AM, and I was attempting to navigate the bedroom in the dark, as my wife was not yet awake. We had been doing some work in an adjacent attic storeroom, and consequently our bedroom had numerous items in it not normally in my way. While trying to get to the thermostat to adjust it for the morning, I fell over these objects, dislocating my middle finger in the process. When I got light on my hand (which was easy as my wife was suddenly awake), I saw that the finger made a hard-left turn at the first knuckle, and rested at a 90-degree angle across the back of the two neighbors to its left. Even though I had not yet had any coffee, I knew that could indicate a problem. Without really thinking about it, I grabbed the finger, snapped it back into position, made sure I could bend it, and assuming nothing was broken, went to make that much needed coffee.

Long story short, we did splint it, and had it checked (but not x-rayed) the following morning just to make sure everything would be ok. Two weeks later, when the finger had locked in a straight position, I was told to go to Urgent Care and have the thing x-rayed for potential issues. The good news is with a little therapy the finger will be fine. But it was the visit to Urgent Care and a follow up with a hand surgeon that brings us back to my discussion of “automation creep”.

It seems that visit to Urgent Care prompted an inquiry from my health insurance carrier, United Health Care. I received what is now likely a common letter, asking me if the injury could have been the result of anyone else who could be financially responsible for it. The letter provided a questionnaire that could be completed or faxed, as well as a toll free number that could be called to provide the information they wanted. I opted for the toll free number, which was managed by Optum. Either way, the letter made it perfectly clear that should I fail to cooperate and report back within 20 days, all “claims would be denied” (we will revisit this point in a future post related to the National Conversation and delayed care in workers’ comp).

I don’t know why I expected a human when I called. We’ve been dealing with automated phone systems for up to twenty years. The computer managed call was quick and forthright. No, the injury did not occur at work. No, it wasn’t a car accident. No, it was not on someone else’s property. No, it was not for a previously known or ongoing condition. When I had answered all the questions, the system thanked me and advised me that “Optum would instruct United Health to process my claims in accordance with the requirements of my benefits plan”. 

And that was that. Nothing extraordinary at all. And that is my point. Automation creep allows much of the change brought by technology to be gradual and widely accepted, to the point where we eventually do not give it a second thought. At some time in the last decade or so, a human being would have been the one to take that call. A human being would have held the job now completely performed by a machine; yet today we stand on our mount and lecture about the coming wave of automation and job elimination when the change has been underway for some time.

I am reminded of an old MASH episode, where the character Corporal Klinger is talking about his mothers’ clairvoyant abilities. He explains that she “had a vision and saw the attack on Pearl Harbor”. When asked if she warned anybody, he replied, “Nah, she didn’t get it until December 8th”.

For you millennials who went to public school where they either now teach alternative history or none at all, the attack on Pearl Harbor happened on December 7th, which is what makes that line funny. But I digress…..

The point is, many of us are warning about a storm that has been well underway for some time. The good news is that our adoption and acceptance of these technologies has come without major disruptions in employment at the professional level. However, as a long time Floridian, I also know the outer bands of a hurricane do not carry the biggest wallop. The question is, as the storm intensifies, when automation creep becomes a full squall, will we weather it properly? Will the change be perceived in acceptable increments, or will the disruption we fear truly come to pass? That is the question at hand. It seems the answer may be found in our own complacency.


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