The man vs machine trope limits our ability to imagine the future of work

We must avoid language that implies people are pitted against robots, and consider how gender features in such discussions, says Elisabeth Kelan

The man versus machine tension is a theme commonly discussed when opening any book on the future of work. The trope conjures images of robots taking over the world, and resonates with themes prominent in popular culture, such as in 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Terminator. It is also used to describe the chess matches between Garry Kasparov and IBM’s Deep Blue, and the Go matches between DeepMind's AlphaGo program and Ke Jie. What is clear is this relationship is antagonist and an epic battle. 

Thought leaders tend to use this man versus machine tension to discuss the imagined future from either utopian or dystopian perspectives. The dystopian view is associated with the automation paradigm. Machines will replace workers over time, leading to mass unemployment and profound challenges for the economic and social system as it currently exists. In the utopian view, machines and humans will work together, leading to new jobs and new forms of prosperity. This perspective falls into the augmentation paradigm, where the machine is augmenting human capabilities and vice versa. Most thought leaders on the future of work fall somewhere on this continuum between utopia and dystopia.

What is curiously absent from most of these mainstream discussions is how this future of work will affect diversity and inclusion generally, and gender specifically. When gender is discussed at all, talk quickly moves to how women are absent among the ranks of programmers and data scientists. Women are thus not contributing to designing new technologies and engaging in future-orientated jobs. It is also commonly mentioned that women are overrepresented in hard to automate roles such as care. But they are also overrepresented in assistant roles, which are regarded as prone to automation. So the future of gender at work is not clear cut. The simple logic of winners and losers that the man versus machine trope implies does not seem to account for the complexities that the future of work will entail. 

Gender also enters the narrative in other ways. Machines resemble humans either by design or through association, and anthropomorphising AI often means gendering AI. Robots can take a female form as gynoid or fembot (it should also be noted that AI is largely imagined as white, both in terms of the colour for the actual machine and the ethnicity portrayed). Gender also becomes apparent in the voices of AI-powered assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana – they all have female-sounding voices as a default. The use of the female voice for such virtual assistants harks back to images of women as supporters and helpers. It is, then, very difficult to think about this as a battle between human and machines – AI is embodying gendered attributes. 

So the question is whether the man versus machine trope serves us well when we think about the future of work. Maybe it is time to move away from this and think about alternatives. We could think about (wo)man versus machine or simply human versus machine. However, this still sets the relationship up as antagonistic. Instead we need to use language that does not imply people are pitted against machines, but that acknowledges the mutual shaping of people and machines. This then allows us to imagine the future as something that can be shaped too. 

The Covid-19 pandemic is widely assumed to have accelerated digitalisation. It is a particularly crucial time to think about the future of work and what this might entail. How this is imagined, and how gender and diversity and inclusion feature in those discussions, is vital. By analysing how the future is imagined, it is possible to take corrective action to ensure this future is an inclusive one.

Elisabeth Kelan is professor of leadership and organisation and Leverhulme Trust major research fellow at Essex Business School. The man versus machine trope is one theme her research analysing popular books on the future of work explores. If you have suggestions of books to analyse, please share them here