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Workplace Automation – Should we be worried?

Are you worried that the robots are coming to take your job?

Perhaps you should be, although much depends on the type of work you do. This is revealed in a recent comprehensive report from the Brookings Institute that looks at the future of automation in the workplace.

However, don’t reach for the ‘abort’ switch just yet. The authors of this report paint a potentially positive picture of workplace automation. It all depends on how we adapt to these changes.

This quote sums it up,

automation will bring neither apocalypse nor utopia, but instead bring both benefits and stresses alike”.

Read on, for some of the headline figures from the report. And to know if we should be worried, we’ve also dug into a few other studies to discover more about the possible benefits of workplace automation.

Headline Figures – The Brookings report on automation in the workplace

First, some troubling news. Unless you’re a cyborg.

More and more jobs will become automated in the future. Everybody agrees on this. The only variable is by how much.

The Brookings Institute predicts that nearly a quarter of all jobs will have high exposure to automation by 2030.

Mechanical Robot Looking for WorkCertain jobs sectors will be particularly affected, notably:

  • Office Administration (such as payroll)
  • Transportation
  • Food Preparation

A whopping 70% of jobs in these categories could be automated in the future.

However, no job is fully resistant. Virtually all jobs will be exposed to some degree of workplace automation in the future, according to this study. Although there will still be jobs for us mere humans, robots and artificial intelligence will take over more and more of the work-based tasks we currently do.

Worried? Concern about automation in the workplace is now so widespread, websites now exist to predict how much your job will be affected. Such as the suitably named, ‘will robots take my job’.

More data about the impact of automation on employment

The Brookings report (based upon analysis of data from the USA), also identified other potential outcomes of job automation.

For example, smaller, rural communities could be most affected. Why? Simply because there are fewer highly skilled jobs outside metropolitan areas. Farming for example, has already experienced significant change because of  automation.

Certain sections of society may also be hit hardest by workplace automation. With unhappy predictability, it includes historically marginalised sections of society, such as:

  • Less educated workers
  • Younger workers
  • Under-represented groups, such as Hispanic and black workers.

The study also predicts that men will be affected by job automation slightly more than women (43% vs 40%).

That said, just about everyone will be affected to varying degrees. For a quick overview, check out this handy infographic from the Brookings Institute.

Identifying the potential benefits of automation on jobs

Should we be alarmed by these predictions? Perhaps, but if you dig around the subject, you’ll soon discover it is not all bad news.

A good place to start when predicting the future, is the past.

One promising statistic comes from the last 30 years, during the so-called Digital or Information Age. A period when computers ushered in greater workplace automation. Yet it was also a period of increasing global employment. Indeed, jobs were created despite an even-faster rise in the global population.

Workplace Automation in ActionIncreasing workplace automation actually created jobs. Higher value jobs and new ways of working. In short, workplace technology complemented our jobs, rather than replaced them.

One report from Deloitte claimed that technological advances in the past 15 years helped create 3.5 million higher-skilled jobs in the UK alone. This was at the cost of just 800,00 lower-skilled jobs. Even more hearteningly, these jobs paid significantly more (up to £10,000 per annuum more, according to Deloitte).

The flipside, according to the Brookings Institute, is that most of the jobs were created within skilled or unskilled sectors. Fewer middle income jobs were created.

Another positive of workplace automation is that production costs have come down, allowing for greater efficiency. Companies produce more for less.

Arguably, we’ve all gained from increasing workplace automation. Prices have come down and quality gone up. Work has become less demanding while better paid jobs have been created.

Artificial intelligence & the future of work?

Yet technology is marching forward. Dystopic observers are now asking whether workplace tech has now reached a tipping point. Whereas Information Technology helped us do our jobs in recent years, the more advanced technology of Artificial Intelligence is ushering in an era where human operators may no longer be required.

Automated bank tellers. Self-service shopping. Restaurant ordering via touchscreens. Chatbots. Driverless cars (taxis). All this is happening around us. There are many more examples where artificial intelligence and robots are taking over everyday tasks.

And while these facilities often make life easier, we don’t see the workers who once did those jobs. The people who have been ‘displaced’.

One less-than-positive study from Oxford University predicts that up to 47% of jobs in the USA will be lost to workplace automation in the next 20 years.

Rows of RobotsAnd it is not just academics sounding the alarm. A Pew Research Center Survey from 2017 showed American workers were nearly twice as likely to be worried (vs enthusiastic) about the future of artificial intelligence.

One writer, also writing for the Brookings Institute, predicts that even just a limited impact from automation on employment could result in a breakdown in society not seen since the Great Depression.

Welcoming our robot overlords co-workers?

Perhaps all this pessimism is unfounded. After all, we’ve been here before.

As far back as the 19th Century the Luddites were smashing up machines in a vain bid to halt progress. And the worry has never gone away. John Maynard Keynes, for example, talked of ‘technological unemployment’ back in the 1930s.

And as shown by some very contrasting predictions, the future is murkier than the past. Importantly, we can still shape the future.

Nobody (yet) is talking about all jobs being replaced. Many studies note the significant limitations to what artificial intelligence and programmed machines can do.

One report from McKinsey & Company predicts that as much 30% of current employment tasks could be automated. However, it also predicts that less than 5% of occupations could be fully automated. This is similar to how computers help us do our jobs without taking them away. In other words, machines can do some of the work, but not all of it.

At present, robots and intelligent programming can only do jobs that are routine and predictable. We are a long way from creating machines with emotional intelligence and the ability to make ‘out of the box’ decisions. Scientists refer to this kind of artificial intelligence as Artificial Narrow Intelligence (or Weak Artificial Intelligence).

Frustrated Computer UserChatbots are a good example. They’re a great idea in principle and clearly welcomed by companies who want to provide a 24/7 service. But even this relatively straightforward task for artificial intelligence often causes more headaches than they fix.

However, artificial intelligence is getting smarter. Future generations may have to deal with Artificial General Intelligence, which is of a completely different order. Thankfully that is something for future generations to worry about, and perhaps not just because of the impact on employment…

Education, Education, Education

Future possibilities are just, well, possibilities. We control the direction of travel and the one common theme that emerges from all these predictions is the need to adapt to workplace automation.

Redefining workplace skills will likely be the most important change for future generations.

We might need to manage the decline in opportunities arising from workplace automation. A problem our governments may have to wrestle with in the short-medium term. But the long-term plan will surely require educators and employers to help future generations learn new skills. The kind of skills that can harness and exploit the possibilities of workplace automation.

That is why reports, such as the Brooking Institute study, are invaluable. They can inform and shape the direction future policy.

One striking data point from the Brookings Institute should act as a wake-up call:

49% of workers with no university education will be most affected by job automation

Whereas:

29% of workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher will be affected.

Adapt to survive

Technology and its boundless progress is unstoppable. Unless we get the hammers out and start smashing up machines like the Luddites of the 19th Century, we have to accept that. Future generations will have to adapt to survive and, as history has shown, probably will.

An optimistic view of the future is one where workers learn new, value-adding skills. A future where we will be better rewarded for those skills. Where we find work more rewarding and better rewarded.

The potential is there for another leap forward for mankind, with some experts identifying workplace automation as an integral part of the 4th Industrial Revolution.

A Brighter Future

Just as the printing press transformed publishing, and computers transformed administrative tasks, so workplace automation can positively transform the way we work. Mundane, repetitive tasks can be given to the machines, while we get on with more creative, innovative work.

We can already see the benefits in manufacturing, where both mundane tasks and dangerous jobs are completed by machines. We can observe how intelligent automation is transforming farming, at a time when an expanding global population demands. And we can expect similar benefits in other lines of work.

This quote, from Andy Kessler in the Wall Street Journal neatly sums it up.

…jobs that robots can replace are not good jobs in the first place. As humans, we climb up the rungs of drudgery — physically tasking or mind-numbing jobs — to jobs that use what got us to the top of the food chain, our brains.”

Funny Robots at Work

Another positive hope is that smarter workplace automation may allow us to enjoy more free time. We should see companies become more productive and innovative, with workers paid more for less work. It’s one of the key hopes behind growing demands for a 4 day working week.

What is clear is that workplace automation is going to have a huge impact on society. The only question is whether that change is for better, or worse. Until the robots become sentient, that appears to be entirely in our control.

Notes

There is much to explore in this subject and we may yet go deeper with a review of other studies on this subject.

But for now, check out the Brookings Institute report. It is timely and gets gritty with the data. It was the inspiration for this article. Ideal reading for employment nerds or anyone looking to wind the clock down one Friday afternoon.

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