AUTOMATION ATTACKS!!! – BUT IN A GOOD WAY
Automation and its role in the workplace is expected to grow and grow, raising fundamental issues around employment, how businesses operate and the way in which we live our lives.
Concerns around how, when and where automation should be used are valid and when technology is depicted as man vs machine, most humans would naturally side with the people.
Automation can be a divisive issue. (Who hasn't had at least one bad experience at a self-service checkout or slyly kicked a vending machine for unwittingly withholding their packet of Walkers?)
Inflammatory headlines and statistics can make you picture a world where blue and white collar workers nervously rub their necks, wondering if they'll be next for the chop, as soulless automated, machines fix them in their laser sights and prepare to blast these poor souls to the soup kitchens of tomorrow.
It's the kind of apocalyptic vision that would make a decent movie, but thankfully this world is pure fiction and it's a mistake to view the technology in this way. Automation is happening and, if handled sensibly, it could and should be great for mankind and improve our lives in much more valuable ways than handing us our crisps.
Here are 6 reasons to embrace automation and learn to love your new robotic ‘colleagues'.
THE REALITY IS, IT'S NOTHING NEW
You know your photocopier. You're used to your photocopier. Well, it's early automation at it's finest and it saves you a considerable amount of time and money, freeing you and your workforce up to do more important stuff.
Automation actually became a thing back in 1602, when Dutch Scientist Cornelius Drebbel invented the thermostat. Before automation, your telephone calls had to be put through manually and dangerous jobs cost plenty of workers their lives, before the mechanical, hydraulic pneumatic and electronic machines stepped in. When you look at automation today, in this context, it doesn't seem scary, so much as a natural progression.
BETTER. FASTER. SAFER. CHEAPER
Since the humble thermostat, automation has come a long way, revolutionising manufacturing and giving birth to the computer age. But now things are really heating up. Last spring, AlphaGo – an artificial intelligence machine beat the human world champion in a five-game match of the ancient Chinese board game Go: A game considered so demanding that no computer could master it.
IBM's cognitive computing platform Watson competed on the US game show Jeopardy back in 2011, against two former winners and won first prize. From there the system's software went on to aid in management decisions in lung cancer treatment, with 90 per cent of nurses who used the system following its guidance.
IBM's Watson answers questions like Sherlock solves crime. Quick, methodical, unbiased by emotion and able to process huge amounts of information – including 200 million pages of structured and unstructured content and the full text of Wikipedia - more quickly than any human.
Watson listens to a question in natural language, seeks to understand it in greater detail and returns a precise answer. Unsurprisingly, IBM love Watson, describing it as a “silver thread that runs through all the company's cognitive solutions”. Their Chief Financial Officer, Martin Schroeter went one step further last week, declaring:
“The debate about whether artificial intelligence is real, is over!”
Increased productivity, standardisation of quality and substantial cost saving, in the long run, are the given advantages of automation. But today's machines can also be infinitely more accurate, reduce danger in the workplace and perform tasks far beyond human capabilities.
Some predict that the result of this advancement will be the widespread loss of jobs, with a University of Oxford study estimating that automation could replace “nearly half of all US jobs over the next two decades”. But what does that mean for us? If machines can do the job better, faster and cheaper, what will people do?
MORE NEW AND BETTER JOBS
Well the good, or bad news, depending on your outlook, is the people will still need to work. Economists in the opposite camp to Oxford University, like James Besson, argue that the rise of automation and jobs will likely go hand in hand.
The first industrial revolution took manufacturing out of people's homes and into the workplace, giving them formal labour, skills and regular wages. The second, characterised by electrification, large-scale production and the expansion of communication and transportation networks, led to the birth of the bourgeoisie, established governments and introduced progressive social policies.
What history has taught us is that industrial revolutions, whilst disruptive, ultimately improve conditions for working men and women. The Fourth Industrial Revolution, defined by automation – won't necessarily remove the opportunity to work but instead, change the nature of it.
Google co-founder and computer scientist Segev Brin believes that automation will be good for people because it will allow them to take up more “intellectually demanding, creative or even artistic pursuits” with more mundane tasks “being performed by technology". What's not to love about that?
The truth is that, at this point, it's impossible to predict what the overall impact on employment will be. But we needn't worry just yet.
WE HAVE TIME TO ADJUST
While the changes that automation presents look set to be momentous – indeed revolutionary – they will not happen all at once, or necessarily any time soon. Instead, we have decades to adjust as individuals, companies and society. It isn't a case of waiting to see what happens, but rather a case of working to shape what our future looks like now.
The World Economic Forum believe that governments have “a crucial role to play” in this process, driving appropriate levels of collaboration, regulation, standards, education and training that will ensure automation “translates into shared economic growth.”
Accenture, one of the world's largest professional services and tech firms wiped out 17,000 jobs through automation over the last 18 months. But nobody lost their job. Richard Lumb, their CEO explained:
“We were fortunate to be able to reskill and reposition back office, processing staff. We decided to take that approach when we knew we were going to bring in greater automation at scale. It's actually eliminated more menial work and boosted productivity”.
So the future of work need not be dystopian if managed in the right way.
WE'RE STILL BETTER THAN ROBOTS
It's such an obvious statement that it felt a little strange to type. Yes, automation technology is incredible, but it's not infallible, nor is it capable of operating without some sort of human production or surveillance.
Despite huge leaps, automation has some way to go before it can really compete with the emotional complexities, depth of thinking, knowledge or intuition of the human mind. Tasks requiring subjective assessment, synthesis of complex data and high-level functions, such as strategic planning still require human expertise.
In fact, the paradox of automation is that the more efficient the automated system becomes, the more crucial the human contribution is. If an automated system has an error, it will multiply that error until it is fixed or shut down. This is where human operators come in. In the future humans may become less involved, but their involvement will become more critical.
IT'S ABOUT HOW WE USE THE TECHNOLOGY, NOT THE TECHNOLOGY ITSELF
(Image: The Pepper robot, which can be used in fields such as healthcare, technology, education and retail. Photograph: Christopher Jue/EP)
The real question is how we as business and society handle this change, to ensure all people – not just shareholders or captains of industry - benefit from automation.
Henry Ford, Founder of Ford Motors, sponsor of the development of the assembly line and a dedicated capitalist understood that there was no point building a car that customers couldn't afford, so he paid his many workers decent living wage. Today's business world needs to grow in a similarly responsible fashion. Because almost every business seeds an affluent, employed market.
At times it may seem that technology is a force greater than humans, driving workers and business to adapt or peril. But automation is very much a human tool and like any tool, it's primary use to make life and work easier.
You can't stand in the way of progress, but you can shape it. Automation is creating tremendous opportunities in the workplace. Big changes are always scary. But don't rage against the machine, like an angry Luddite shattering a textile loom. Embrace change. It's good for business. And it's good for people too.