Throughout history, different eras have begotten different heroes of productivity in industry. In the 80s, the stock broker was the rock star of the business world. In the late 90s and 2000s, it was the computer programmer. For the last decade or so, it's been the data scientist. As the work of data scientists and engineers creates the Automation Age, the next industrial rock star will be the customer service specialist.

Before you scoff at the idea of what may be considered a lower-level job today, ask yourself what happened to the stock broker? When's the last time you talked to one or even heard of one? Jobs ebb, flow, and disappear. The importance of a function today is not equivalent to the importance of that same function tomorrow, and it never will be.

Humans have three core capabilities with which robots cannot compete: creativity, community, and empathy. As we enter the Automation Age, where the fear of robots replacing human work is likely to come true, those three skills will enable the future of human productivity. The last of the three, empathy, should well be considered the most important.

Empathy is what most makes us human - the capacity for mutual understanding. As the Automation Age eliminates rote and some not-so-rote tasks, it will create an opportunity for humans to capitalize on empathy. The manifestation of empathy in industry is through unique and memorable customer service, no matter the business. Welcome to the Empathy Economy.

Image: World Bank

The Empathy Economy is an intentional spin on the Sharing Economy. Just as the Sharing Economy was a byproduct of a super connected world via the Internet and smartphones, the Empathy Economy will arise through the result of job loss from automation.

Uber, Airbnb, WeWork, and countless other business have changed the way humans think about asset ownership and even asset leasing. If users own assets, they want to get more out of them. If users need assets, they want instant access to them on demand without the burden of ownership.

The Sharing Economy, as with all functional economies, is efficient in matching two complementary desires. The Empathy Economy will similarly match humans or businesses who desire empathic services with those willing to offer them.

We see 3 core opportunities within the Empathy Economy:

  • Services that augment human empathy: For example, a lightweight CRM tool that enables employees to instantly recognize customers when they walk in the door, remember details about their lives, and know their preferences for service at the business.
  • Services that build empathy: For example, a simulated environment that puts trainees through various situations to help them understand why another person feels a certain way and how to best serve them.
  • Marketplaces that match buyers and sellers of empathy: For example, a platform that makes freelance customer service experts available for various tasks that might require a human touch to differentiate and enhance a particular service.

Today's businesses must adopt automation technologies and embrace the Empathy Economy simultaneously by leveraging empathic customer service specialists as the face of their automated tools. In other words, people will act as a truly human skin on the work being produced by robots.

In the future, H&R Block will leverage AI to automate every customer's taxes, but it's also likely that they'll need a human, who may only have cursory knowledge about accounting, present the sensitive reality that a customer owes the government a few thousand dollars in taxes; or perhaps the joy that they'll be getting a few thousand dollars in refund.

Either way, the human presentation creates a differentiated customer experience that can be distinctly H&R Block. Using only automation as their selling point, which every other tax prep service will also have and may only vary slightly, will necessitate a race to the bottom in price. In this example, H&R Block could benefit by adopting services that help augment and build empathy as the core skill of their customer service specialists.

Another outcome of the Empathy Economy could be Target leveraging a marketplace for freelance workers with specific product expertise and high empathic qualities to deliver orders to local customers with personalized service. Similar to the tax example, this moves the discussion away from price towards experience, which can command a premium.

You may be wondering why empathy is the greatest opportunity in the triumvirate of uniquely human traits. Creativity and community already exist in a structured sense in our societies.

Creativity has always been a democracy, but the Internet made the distribution of creativity available to all. There are numerous ways, both online and offline, to share creativity and get paid for it, YouTube and Patreon as examples. These platforms will only become more important in the Automation Age.

As for community, traditional institutions provide this now - governments, churches, schools, local businesses, etc. Technology will help these institutions continue to evolve with automation; however, trusting relationships between people will remain the heart of community because, by definition, it has to.

Empathy doesn't yet seem to have a defined structure for application in our world. We know it's important and the best businesses find ways to implement empathy into their culture, but it's still a nebulous, unmeasurable thing. The Empathy Economy will change that.

It's cliché to say that empathy is in short supply today because every generation probably has the same sentiment. The good news is that automation will force humans to be more human, and the Empathy Economy will create opportunities for humans to monetize a uniquely human capability. True empathy isn't easy, but it's the most powerful expression of humanity. In a world full of robots, empathy can only become more valuable.

Doug Clinton is a managing partner at Loup Ventures, a research-driven venture capital firm focused on investing in frontier technology.