Investing in Human Enablement

By Alan Cohen 03.30.22

Enablement: the action of giving someone the authority or means to do something.

For the first half of my childhood, my father drove a delivery truck every day, starting at dawn. He found better prospects over time, but if you know anything about trucking, you know it’s a difficult, sometimes dangerous, and frequently lonely, lonely job, a profession begging for automation and autonomous operations. The difficulty of the job and the shortage of drivers are why we are now seeing new companies like Embark Trucks entering service, addressing the driver gap in long-haul trucking.

For the past half-century, the tech industry indexed on accelerating how we work, live, learn, and play through information. Putting the correct information in people’s hands unlocked a back-office revolution and expanded the knowledge of hundreds of millions of people. But unfortunately, it also created an enormous drone army of monotonous positions filling in cells in spreadsheets or SaaS applications, responding to emails, and looking up information for others, for many a form of human bondage.

When we look at the growth rate of the $4 Trillion information technology sector, market researcher Gartner estimates an average annual increase of approximately 2-3% over the past decade. The backdrop here is that hundreds and hundreds of millions of people joined the Internet and the IT revolutions over the same timeframe. This growth rate is pathetic.

For investors, it’s time to look at industries that have not experienced a true digital transformation as well as offer larger and faster-growing prospects. It’s time to back technologies that can uplift the nature of work from the mindless forms of human middleware we ask of lower- or entry-level workers to create more skilled roles that pay better and inspire more. The services economy, manufacturing, supply chain, transportation, physical security, and health care sectors need to graduate from low-skilled labor to the professions of the future.

Deep tech – the merger of computational capability and science – is creating opportunities to:

  • upskill work from mindless to meaningful
  • replace poor jobs with better ones
  • deliver more goods and services to more people, and
  • make good workers great

We learned the hard lesson of not taking this approach to work during the pandemic where three gaps played a role in the Great Resignation: an enthusiasm gap, an economics gap, and a childcare gap. Human enablement technologies promise to address all three.

Can technology make us safer and healthier?

Few things could be more important in our society than keeping ourselves safe. Over one percent of the U.S. workforce is in government or private sector security roles (including law enforcement). In addition, there are over one million private security guards in the U.S, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), augmenting a workforce of roughly 800,000 police officers.

Despite the apparent requirement to help keep people safe, the role pays poorly, with a mean hourly wage of about $16/hour nationally (not as much as working for Amazon or Starbucks). Not surprisingly, the industry experiences enormous turnover as it offers little room for advancement. In environments that demand more safety, such as schools, hospitals, and entertainment venues, poorly trained security guards sit next to metal detectors, triggered into action by Pavlovian beeping alerts. They are paired with inferior technologies that cannot discriminate the difference between an iPhone and a Glock and must respond to everything.

What if technology could replace the mundane, inane, repetitive physical security work (like responding to false alerts) and make providing protection a highly skilled and more effective source of employment? Fortunately, companies such as Evolv Technology deploy artificial intelligence to distinguish weapons from non-threatening objects: guards are being retrained to deal with real threats versus the mind-numbing tasks of going through everyone’s bags. Prediction: cyber security suffers many of the same ills and will be next.

During the Covid pandemic, the strain on our medical establishment pushed the system to the breaking point. Many workers left healthcare altogether. The human tragedy of COVID-19 exposed the massive gap in supply for many skilled professionals, including sonographers, nurses, and doctors. The shortfall in sonographers and surgeons in the U.S. alone represent tens of thousands of experienced professionals, resulting in considerable gaps in preventative care as well as needed surgeries to deal with pressing ailments. Worldwide, the void is more likely in the hundreds of thousands to even a million medical professionals, offering the mother-of-all new technology markets.

Today, Caption Health advances machine learning and computer vision technologies to enable medical assistants and Navy corpsmen to complete efficient and accurate ultrasound echocardiography studies, including measuring the ejection fraction (i.e., how well your heart is pumping). AI software democratizes the delivery of predictive medicine.

This ability of technology to deliver more preventative health services to people coupled with handheld diagnostic equipment such as the Butterfly ultrasound, also means service delivery from the hospital and doctor’s offices to more distributed environments (including homes), lowering the cost and increasing availability.

Thinking of my father’s example, stocking, and moving goods in warehouses, and other dangerous, physically taxing roles can increasingly be filled by robots, reducing repetitive motion injuries (author’s note: writing code and pounding out blogs can also cause carpal tunnel). However, automated, autonomous work powered by AI requires human-in-the-loop scenarios. The challenge will be co-designing work around automation and upskilled services, allowing human labor to earn more income as well as providing meaningful work that lowers turnover. Today Agility Robotics offers a fantastic example of this new world.

New world, new skills

It is naïve to think technical innovation does not have social costs. Some innovations can be a force for good: the washing machine, dishwasher, and vacuum cleaner changed women’s’ lives, enabling them to increasingly join the workforce, unlocking a talent source second to none.

Yet technology must not be turning more workers into an industry’s version of navigation-challenged Uber drivers, many of whom mindlessly follow the GPS coordinates on their phones and drive people from place-to-place without even a “how are ya?”, versus the skilled navigation and tourist skills of, say, a London cab driver.

We need a moonshot program across industries that will simultaneously use technology to make goods and services more ubiquitous and upskill millions of workers for this new world. Enablement of work through technology should drive enabling people.


Alan Cohen is a Partner at DCVC.