Is Big Data Gunning For Your Job?

toyguns77746202The trend of humans losing work to machines is nothing new, and this author has been both interested in and writing about the topic for quite some time. Although our egos don’t want to hear it, computers are simply better than us at some tasks. Luckily it happens to be those same tasks that most humans don’t find particular joy in — doing repetitive calculations over and over, or crawling through libraries of data looking for patterns.

The human mind is especially adept at creative problem solving. By presenting that mind with better information — obtained from armies of tireless, precise machines — the hope is that we’ll all “move up one rung” on the employment ladder, and be able to creatively solve more meta-level issues like population growth, climate change and educating our children.

Where you absolutely don’t want to be is stuck on a career ladder where machines are climbing faster and better than you ever will. With the especially rapid pace of innovation in the big data arena, many job titles and entire disciplines are in danger of being done better, faster and cheaper by computer systems.

At particular risk in the coming decade are marketing and advertising professionals, call center and customer support representatives, journalists and managers. In the paragraphs below we’ll talk about how big data threatens to make each of these disciplines the exclusive domain of computers.

As the Wall Street Journal recently reported, big data analytics engines like Persado are able to make better ad copy than even humans. Even human language can be boiled down into an algorithm, and Persado’s software deconstructs the language behind advertisements into five components (including the emotional) and then creates and independently scores each of the possible millions of combinations. The top few winners are chosen, tested amongst a beta audience and then the top advertisement is displayed to users on emails and web pages.

Where human copywriters and graphic artists can create and test a few combinations, platforms like Persado can effectively test all of them. By then feeding the results of each test back into the engine, Persado can constantly refine its algorithms and “keep current” with which words, pictures and emotions resonate with which types of audiences.

In the same vein, a corporate call center is a treasure trove of language and data, all of which can be fed into computer systems that score those interactions against each other. For many organizations, the call center may in fact throw off more data than any other part of the business. New York recently made national news with the success of their 311 city services hotline, which leverages big data to more effectively deal with common problems like potholes, stray dogs and disturbances. Although the individuals fielding those calls will, for quite some time, remain humans, the “management layer” above them is going to increasingly be performed by big data analysis engines. These systems can already compare agents to each other, and provide “training” to agents about how to improve their interactions and better help customers. No doubt, there have probably already been several agents “fired” by these systems when their scores did not measure up.

The narrow interactions defined by a customer service call may seem a natural fit for a big data analysis engine — by the time a live agent picks up the phone, the customer has probably already pressed a few buttons defining their purpose (and expected outcome) of the call. After that, it’s simply analyzing what agents said or did differently to successfully complete the call.

What may surprise you, however, is that some market leaders predict that within 15 years, upwards of 90 percent of the news we read will be written by computers. Language really is an algorithm, and when one takes an honest look at what makes good journalism, it’s in finding and reporting trends — two tasks that computers are especially well-suited to performing. Even today, many simple articles like sports game recaps are, in fact, written by computers. As these systems become more and more complex, so will their ability to both discover and write engagingly about trends of import.

But perhaps the biggest shock to the human workforce will be in just how well big data systems perform many of the roles currently carried out by managers. Hiring, training, schedule planning, evaluating, and yes, even firing — all of these decisions are heavily driven by data. Just as the call center representative’s every call is recorded, analyzed and compared to the desired outcome, every worker’s performance will soon be recorded, measured and validated against the ideal. If we’re not careful, this could all end very badly for us.

Basically, if a large part of your job involves collecting and/or analyzing data, regardless of how menial or complex, you should probably be investigating a new career. Might we suggest a career in big data? We hear it has quite a future.

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