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Automation: The surprising downside, and more great insights

“This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but a whimper.” – TS Eliot

Will human employment fade away into nothing at the hands of automation? One global thought leader shares what workplaces can expect – and how they should prepare for the future of work.

Predicting the future is an imprecise art. But after years of crying wolf, one thing is becoming clear: automation is set to change the world of work forever.

“It’s not easy to measure automation precisely, but anecdotal and economic evidence indicate we have every reason to believe it will move faster and faster,” says Martin Ford, global thought leader on automation at work and author of Rise of the Robots: Technology and the threat of a jobless future. 

Ford, who will be speaking at the upcoming Creative Innovation Conference, first became interested in an automated future while running a small software company in the 1990s. Back then, software still came on CD ROMs that were shipped to customers – a job that, while tech based, still required a human touch. Soon, this transitioned to electronic delivery or cloud-based software. It occurred to Ford that what was happening in his own business would soon scale across the economy, disrupting more sectors than just information technology services.

Automation has gained more visibility since those early days, but one major error that persists concerns who it will affect and how.

“The biggest misconception is that it’s primarily something that will impact people who work blue collar jobs,” he says. Manufacturing took a hit years ago, along with jobs in natural resources, agriculture and some administration roles, to name a few. But it’s coming just as fast for white collar workers as well, he warns. Level of education doesn’t matter – it’s about the nature of the work you do.

“The basic idea is that any job that is on some level routine or predictable, no matter what skill level, is susceptible to automation,” Ford says. 

A recent study conducted by the Oxford Martin Programme on Technology and Employment at the University of Oxford found that 64 per cent of those surveyed think automation will lead to significant challenges for future labour markets. And according to a 2015 CSIRO report, 40 per cent of the Australian workforce – that’s five million people – could be replaced by automation in the next 10 to 20 years.

There are always dips in employment figures when new technologies disrupt entrenched sectors, Ford says. But it’s the type and scale of this current round of automation that can upset the balance.

“Technology always destroys jobs and creates jobs,” Ford says. Historically, the jobs created have been better than the ones destroyed, but will this continue to be true? Yes, thinks Ford, but the caveat is there won’t be as many created and they won’t be as accessible.

“Think about self-driving cars. When that happens, millions of driving jobs will disappear – taxi drivers, delivery drivers … Jobs created will be control centres or technicians that monitor these cars, but no way will there be as many of these types of jobs as those driving vehicles.”

Another problem is that the types of skills people will need to do jobs in the future will only become more niche. Most respondents to the Oxford study think investment in education is the most effective way to offset the risks of automation, but Ford sees a few problems with this thinking.

“The traditional solution has been to send people back to school, but you can’t turn everyone into an engineer,” he says. “We shouldn’t value it more narrowly over other options because more education won’t always lead to a better job.”

Can we future-proof work?

The short answer to that question is ‘no’, but there are things that employers and employees can do now to prepare for a more automated future.

As machines and artificial intelligence become better at learning, being a ‘skilled worker’ is no longer enough.  

“It’s not about acquiring more skills, because AI is getting good at that, too,” says Ford. The most protected areas are ones that require genuine creativity, deep and meaningful interpersonal exchanges, complex problem solving and mobility.

Human resources might start to feel this distinction more than most. Although the profession uses AI and automated software for various functions, ‘human’ is still very much the operative word here. The safest jobs are the ones that deal with people, says Ford, and this might even become more valued as machines make their presence known.

The more routine aspects of human resources are most at stake, which could see the field split into two spheres, where basic line duties are taken on by machines, freeing up HR practitioners to assume a strategic and creative position within organisations.

Another aspect of automation that human resources needs to consider is the effect it will have on employee morale. Ford predicts that as more jobs become automated, businesses will be faced with employee redundancies and decreased engagement, which could affect employee performance and team spirit.

“HR definitely needs to keep automation on the radar, not just in terms of their own jobs, but for the organisation as a whole,” Ford says. Although companies do have a capitalistic incentive to eliminate unnecessary jobs, many will be negatively affected if customer bases shrink as a result of unemployment.

“There’s a strong argument for companies to have a vested interest in this,” Ford says. “Don’t ask what you can do to keep people in the loop; that’s the wrong question. Instead, this is an opportunity for business leaders to speak out and help shape policy about employment and automation going forward.

“It might not happen in 10 years, or even 20. But 50 years from now, nothing is off the table.”

So get comfortable, just not too comfortable. Not to scare you, but you might need to salute the robot overlords soon enough.

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David Taylor
David Taylor

“It might not happen in 10 years or 20 years. But 50 years from now, nothing is off the table.”

I am not sure it is that far away. There are certainly many companies starting to deploy Robotic Process Automation. For some this is still at the pilot, or proof of concept stage, but for others the use of robotics is well established. These robots are being used for a wide range of processing activities including those related to HR. As William Gibson said “The future is already here – its just not evenly distributed.”


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