Humans And Computers Will Come Together For Middle Work

Editor’s note: David Greenbaum is CEO and co-founder of Boost Media. Previously, David worked in venture capital and at Goldman Sachs, and was director of strategy and M&A at Interval Leisure Group.

Jon Evans’ post “Welcome To Extremistan! Check Your Career At The Door” on TechCrunch warns of mass penury for this generation and the next as the dual horseman of the techno-apocalypse, robots and software, strip humans of their ability to make a living.

Essentially, he predicts machines and algorithms will consume jobs faster than we can create them. Don’t believe this dystopian vision of the future for a second, because both humans and robots will contribute to the economy in generations to come through a concept called “middle work.”

Today, non-manufacturing work largely falls into one of two categories: purely human (a judge serving sentences) or purely software (a computer serving search results). However, there’s an emerging category called middle work that is neither purely human, nor purely software. This new labor category combines both algorithms and human thought processes and will be an impactful economic driver in the next decades.

Middle work leverages what machines do best – solving low-value, high-volume problems – and combines it with what humans do best – solving high-value, low-volume problems.

Middle work is not just “information work” where humans use computers to complete tasks like millions of people do every day in the office. Rather it’s defined as work that wouldn’t be economically viable for a human to do without a workflow platform, yet  is too nuanced for software to perform unaided. For example, software is great for spellchecking a marketing email, but only a human can think creatively to write an engaging headline to get consumers to click on that email.

Between these two extremes exists a middle-work world where humans use software to make the process of writing ad copy more automated and efficient. In this example, middle work might entail hundreds of copywriters using an online network to contribute potential email headlines, allowing a marketer to choose among dozens of headline options and submit several choices for A/B testing. Contributors whose headlines are chosen would earn money for their work. For marketers, this process is more streamlined and cost-efficient than hiring a stable of copywriters.

Of course, over time, software will become more advanced, but it will never be as good as people at jobs that entail creativity, judgment, empathy and a raft of other uniquely human traits. Middle work combines efficient software algorithms with human ingenuity to create a whole new class of jobs – opening up a large swath of economic opportunity. Humans will be able to use software to perform high-value, low-volume tasks with high levels of precision and accuracy.

In many ways Amazon’s Mechanical Turk was the first software-based middle work company. Today, people use Mechanical Turk to solve low-value problems such as classifying the subject of a picture. But the emerging trend is for middle-work companies to verticalize and specialize, allowing humans to leverage software platforms to solve higher-value problems. In middle work, a workflow platform creates standardized units of work, while a marketplace of human labor provides pools of workers who bring creativity and judgment to the tasks at hand.

To make it clear why middle work will become commonplace, consider the following examples: A non-native English speaker wants to verify whether she is using idioms correctly in professional correspondence. A small business owner wants to file his taxes using QuickBooks but isn’t sure of the correct categorization of a deductible 401k plan. An executive needs an accurate transcription of a meeting, but also to clearly identify each of the speakers and their importance to the group.  All of these issues could be solved by web-connected humans using advanced software platforms.

Because middle-work participants don’t have to find the work themselves (the network provides the work opportunities), they can work at lower per-unit costs but still make substantial per-hour rates because their time is spent only delivering work – not prospecting, invoicing and managing clients.

For many industries, the size of the addressable middle can be larger than the head (top-level salaried positions) or the tail (low-value contract work).  A handful of emerging companies are lowering the cost of producing a unit of work by combining software with human labor.

By addressing the middle, companies are not taking jobs away from people who were doing them before, but rather are adding jobs by unlocking a category of work that didn’t exist in the purely human or purely software realms.

Unlocking the middle is a massive opportunity for entrepreneurs, employees and customers alike in industries as diverse as medicine, accounting, law, and music discovery.