For many, the rise of automation in the workplace sounds alarm bells. It’s the first chapter of a story we all know well: robots will eventually replace us, increase inequality within society and erode the sense of purpose given to us by employment.
But while automation will certainly cause disruptions, this is only one potential future – and it’s a rather simplistic one at that. Automation promises to offer employees, businesses and society as a whole unprecedented new opportunities – amplifying the idea that fearing change is rarely ever our best tactic.
Unemployment and job security
Robots taking our jobs is a classic automation trope. 72% of Americans are concerned about a future where machines can perform human tasks, with people being particularly worried about the prospect of mass unemployment. With some predictions suggesting as many as 80% of all retail jobs will be replaced by 2030, this fear can be infectious.
As the common argument goes, low-skilled workers will be replaced by robots and left unable to provide the services needed in digitized business. This in turn will cause greater inequality between those who struggle to find employment and the individuals with highly desirable technical skills.
But this narrative is shockingly unrealistic, at least in the short term. Though headline articles state that automation will lead to a wholesale removal of jobs, we rarely actually see this. Automation is a steady process, and instead of replacing entire roles, the majority of jobs only experience a replacement of certain tasks.
These tasks tend to be the low-value, repetitive and cognitively unrewarding ones – which is why developments like automated time sheets and AI meeting scheduling make such sense. This type of automation does not make consultants and businesspeople redundant; it instead alleviates the burden of mundane tasks and in turn, allows employees more time to focus on their value-adding duties.
Even in places where automation has been most ruthless, like the industrial zones within China, it has led to a change in jobs, rather than widespread unemployment. Robots need to be operated by someone and companies or governments are often willing to retrain staff to fulfil the new roles alongside machines. In fact, a number of predictions suggest that over the next 20 years, automation will lead a net gain in jobs, due to the creation of new productivity enhancing roles.
Automation isn’t just about robots on assembly lines or smart computers replacing teachers and doctors – it is a crucial part of any organization’s digital transformation. All too often, discussions about automation focus solely on distant possibilities and forget that widespread change is already happening.
Automated processes are at the heart of digitally enabled business, with 83% of IT decision-makers stating that automation is essential for digital transformation within their companies. On the operational side, this translates to data being automatically collected and transferred within the business, preventing information being siloed. This is important for a seamless consumer experience, with an increasingly growing expectation that the same information should not need to be shared twice with a company.
Beyond operational efficiency, automation can be used to improve consumer engagement. One example of this is AI chat bots, which have been widely adopted throughout multiple consumer-facing industries. The benefits of this type of automation is clear, with over half of consumers stating that they would prefer using an AI chat bot over waiting for a human assistant because of the time that it would save.
It’s worth remembering that automated processes are also becoming the norm of consumers – in the past year alone, 67% of consumers stated that the had used a chatbot. So businesses who fail to adapt to the realities of automation may encounter inefficiencies and consumer frustration, ultimately making them unable to compete.
The future of work
In the longer-term, automation will become more sophisticated and capable of undertaking extremely complex tasks. AI is already developing emotional intelligence and being used to disrupt even the ‘most human’ jobs, such as song writing. Whilst this type of complex automation is still in its early stages, it will eventually be technically possible for almost all jobs to be automated.
The question then becomes, not what a robot can do, but where we want services to have a human touch. Even when a machine can provide a diagnosis more accurately than a doctor, we want a trained human doctor to walk us through what it means and to provide the emotional labor that is so crucial to healthcare.
In light of this, while some jobs requiring human compassion will remain, the widespread introduction of complex AI systems could leave it unnecessary for humans to work the current 9-5 routine, or even for many people to have jobs at all. Such a situation would entirely reshape how we spend our time, define our identity and the type of economic system that governs society.
Fears over a world without work are not unfounded, yet they aren’t balanced in their outlook. We all have identities beyond our careers and systematic automation would provide us with the time to pursue interests to pursue interests and the voluntary experiences that many feel they can’t fit into their schedules.
Though concerns about the possible economic future are valid, innovative solutions are already being formulated to counter these structural changes. One solution is the universal basic dividend, a tax placed specifically on large corporations, that would then be used to provide every member of society with a stipend. Other suggestions have been more radical and involve going beyond capitalism, through using technology for people and not profit.
So while bold and different, ultimately the future of automation is not something that should be feared. In the short term, businesses will find their services improved and individuals will have more meaningful jobs. But beyond this, automation presents society with the opportunity to move past being defined by work and instead, spend time cultivating the interests that give it meaning and purpose.