The Origins of Work Automation
While it’s true that over the past 300 years successive techno-revolutions have created transition periods with temporary unemployment, it’s also true that new jobs have always appeared. Since the 1960s, only one occupation — the elevator operator — has actually been lost, and more jobs have been created than we could ever have imagined. Therefore, it’s quite possible that the coming surge in automation will offer people with the right attitude a golden age of increased leisure and more rewarding, flexible work.
In 1995, Bjork sang the following lyrics: “All the modern things have always existed. They were just waiting in a mountain to take over… It’s their time now.” Since Kiva the robot first started bringing parts to assembly workers in 2005, the combination of software, sensors, and systems has been robust enough to make automation and AI functional. (And, don’t forget about 2011, when Baxter started sorting loading goods and IBM’s Watson computer won Jeopardy!) AI algorithms, supported by sufficient computing power and copious data, can now train machines to make complex decisions. Here are just some of the ways in which automation has become an integral part of our everyday life:
Autonomous vehicles in industry, agriculture, and the military
Self-driving passenger cars on the roads
Self-service checkout stands in grocery stores, gas stations, and more
Automated assistants to help you stream your favorite podcast or find a movie — all voice activated — so you don’t have to get out of your chair
But, as automation and the robots have proliferated, incomes have shrunk for most people in the developed world. During the past 20 years (particularly during the recession of 2008), income inequality has increased. Wages have stagnated for blue and white-collar workers in the developed world for the first time since the 1970s, even though productivity is at an all-time high. Tech advances are said to be outstripping the skills of many middle and low-income workers. Some blame globalization, the worldwide integration of people, products, and companies, which has helped many in emerging economies to find a better lifestyle, but has also often shifted jobs to other countries. In Western countries, there are now high-wage earners, minimum-wage earners, and a fading middle class. Instead of looking to a better future for their children, these mid-range earners now worry about their children’s future incomes.
At the same time, two themes are emerging regarding the future of work: One, human work can increasingly be accomplished by machines and two, work is being restructured so that it no longer consists of a full-time, long-term commitment to one company, but rather of several intermittent, freelance arrangements with a variety of organizations.
Will increasing automation and digitization exacerbate the issue of unstable employment or provide solutions? This is the question under consideration for such groups and companies as the World Bank, MIT, Sir Richard Branson’s B Team, the Virgin Corporation, and the G7 Future of Work Forum, who mean to address how a global population can develop and use skills and talents as the world faces the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
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Work Automation and the Current State of Work
The current buzz about employment in advanced economies is that people work a lot of hours for very little pay. In the U.S., many unskilled workers, older workers, and women work several minimum wage jobs to make ends meet, especially in cities like Seattle, where the cost of living is high. Wages in the U.S. have risen only for professionals such as doctors, lawyers, and people with PhDs. Those with only college degrees (or less) are seeing smaller pay packages.
This resource gap between highly skilled and low-skilled workers has grown since the economic downturn of 2008. However, some believe the sharp decline in well-paid jobs began long before the last global recession in what economics and business gurus Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee call the “great decoupling,” the gradual separation since World War II of productivity and job creation.
Today, throughout the world, many people who’d like to find work can’t, including 75 million youth in the U.S. and 100 million in the European Union. The fact is people with the skills aren’t always where the jobs are. And, although numerous job statistics focus on the unemployed, there are also millions of people who are underutilized, inactive, underemployed, or underskilled.
Women are the great untapped resource of global labor, with 655 million fewer women than men being employed. And, when women do work, their jobs are frequently low paying. (They are generally less low paying in STEM-related jobs.) As for young people, not only do they lack the skills needed for high-paying jobs, they are also often perceived to lack soft skills, like punctuality, consistency, and communication.
With the global increase of automation, AI, and digitization, fears have risen. As Brynjolfsson suggests in his 2011 book Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution Is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy, technology may make things safer and easier for workers and focus on saving labor, but it has also reduced the number of middle-income jobs. While skilled labor may see wage increases from technology, automation may bring even more polarization of wages.
What Is Work Automation?
Work automation uses machines or software to complete repetitive tasks, dangerous tasks, or tasks that require considerable strength, flexibility, and endurance. Work automation frequently accelerates processing times. Machines and robots can replace people and lift more, pull more, and build more than people. But machines (such as cobots or co-robots) that work safely alongside humans can also complement people.
An extension of automation is digitization, which puts existing assets, operations, and tools online, while also leveraging machines to perform data collection, data monitoring, and incident reporting.
The end result of automation and digitization is a more efficient, cost-effective business model and a more productive workforce. Thereby, machines and software free humans for tasks that require fine thinking and interpersonal communication. In addition, automation also produces jobs concerning the development and maintenance of automated processes, hardware, and software. Together, automation and digitization can offer higher productivity, higher quality, and fewer errors for organizations that can take advantage of them. As of today, however, companies and countries have adopted these technologies inconsistently.
What Is AI Work Automation?
Artificial intelligence (AI) uses algorithms and data to allow computers to mimic human learning and decision making. An algorithm acquires information and the rules that govern that information, a process which allows said algorithm to make decisions. This functionality is made possible through machine learning, which eliminates the need for explicit programming. Today, AI automation can undertake business process design, perform transactions, and conduct customer service.
How Many Jobs Will Be Lost to Work Automation?
Routine jobs are prime candidates for automation. Examples include telemarketing, taxi driving, accounting, sales, and office support. With current technology, about half of the tasks people do can be automated, but only five percent of the jobs can be entirely automated. Here’s another way to look at it: 30 percent of tasks in 60 percent of jobs can be automated. Many believe that by 2030, automation will displace 15 percent of personnel worldwide. That statistic includes physical jobs, structured jobs, and routine tasks for about half of what people do.
But, we can’t randomly automate everything. According to James Manyika in a recent McKinsey discussion, “Activities have been divided into about eight categories, three of which include tasks that can easily be automated with existing capabilities. What's interesting is that those three categories account for about half the economic activity of an advanced work world.”
Manyika explains further: “That’s a big part of what people do. Now, to be perfectly clear, saying that 51 percent of activities are relatively easy to automate does not say that 51 percent of jobs are going to go away. The job question is a very different one, because we know that any one job consists of 20 or 30 different kinds of activities that are aggregated into that job.”
With Work Automation, Jobs Will Change and New Jobs Will Appear
In 1999, the U.S. Department of Labor said that 65 percent of school children would be in a job that hadn’t yet been invented. Almost three quarters of the tasks performed by programmers did not exist before 1995 and the dawn of the World Wide Web. Of new jobs created since 1990, one third are new activities that never existed before. New jobs exist in hardware, software, and app development as well as in IT management.
In our near future, some 60 to 375 million people in the worldwide workforce will be in new occupations, i.e., jobs that don’t exist today. It is already the case that high-skill tech jobs go unfilled. For example, there is currently a deficit of 250,000 openings for data scientists.
For many years, humans have worried about being replaced by robots of some kind. Two hundred years ago, the Luddites feared job losses in the wool and cotton mills of England and destroyed machines to avoid such a fate. But, in a pattern that’s come to be known as the Luddite fallacy, the jobs did not go away with the advent of new technology. Machines continued as complements to human effort, with women superintending looms and men and women working with thrashers and harvesters on farms. Today, robots lift and carry the heavy things that were formerly ported by fit or burly humans.
The Jobs Most Likely to Go Away with the Growth of Work Automation
The impact of automation will be pervasive: felt not just by factory workers and clerks, but also by those who don’t even come near a production line or warehouse. Although only about five percent of tasks can be completely automated, about half of our human activities can be partially automated. If it’s repetitive, it’s automatable. Here are some of the jobs on which automation will have a major impact:
Does Work Automation Reduce Employment?
Should we be optimistic or pessimistic? One of the main discussions around the impact of artificial intelligence and automation on work and jobs is whether we will have enough work left after automation. Brynjolfsson and McAfee felt that improved industrial robotics were largely behind the sluggish employment growth of the last 10 to 15 years.
But, the work world will be affected not just by automation. Automation will create many new roles, but existing positions will also open as aging workers leave the workforce. The fact is that many populations in advanced economies are aging. Demand for some professions will rise as much as 122 percent in China, 242 percent in India, and even 18 percent in the U.S. Automation could very likely provide the vehicle that supplies services and goods and keeps productivity high. Guy Kirkwood explains how the employee shortage in Japan is so severe that automation is a necessity: The Japanese population stopped growing in 2010, and, in a culture that inherently values work, even the government has had to set limits, defining overwork as 106 hours a week or more.
Barriers to Universal Work Automation
Although automation is occurring right now, it isn’t happening and won’t happen everywhere right away. In fact, it may take 20 years before automation reaches its full potential. Automation and digitization are currently distributed unevenly between companies and between countries. The financial services industry, the automotive industry, the media business, the telecommunications industry, and, naturally, technology companies have rapidly embraced advances and benefitted, with high productivity growth and wage growth.
Other fields such as biotechnology, nanotechnology, energy, healthcare, and education could also benefit from automation and digitization, but cultural and logistical obstacles exist.
AI, automation, and robotics can now add more than just speed or power to existing tasks. Machines are capable of doing things for themselves. It may seem scary, but while machines can do fancy pattern matching, they are ultimately still dumb. Just because the technology or capability exists, it doesn’t mean it can be deployed in the field. Plus, developing everything that’s necessary for automation is expensive. And if enough workers can fill the demand now, it may be cheaper to have people perform the work, rather than go through the expense and turmoil of automating.
Here are some of the current problems with automation:
Data Availability: To work well, AI frequently requires a lot of data.
Possible Bias: The data training of automation systems can lead to unwitting bias (due to inadequate samples or measures) or actual prejudice.
Difficulty in Implementation: Preparing infrastructure, people, and processes for AI and automation can present a substantial challenge.
Poor Fit: Machines are less adaptable than people. For example, in manufacturing, automation may be appropropriate only for large enterprises, not for medium and small shops.
Privacy and Misuse Concerns: This issue can arise regarding data collection.
Resistance to Adoption: If you don’t have buy-in from staff and stakeholders, your automation process will be unsuccessful.
Why Humans Still Matter to the Future of Work
Automation can create higher levels of output, producing better quality with fewer errors. It can also find anomalies in production and cover dangerous tasks. These capabilities free up time for humans to focus on more important tasks that require the personal touch. The end result is a more efficient, more cost-effective business and a more productive workforce. But, remember that automation still requires a human to tell it what to do.
Jobs That Are Safe amidst Work Automation
Humans are still needed for work that is complex, creative, or collaborative. The following types of jobs are unlikely to be automated in our lifetime, if ever:
Contractors, freelancers, and independent workers
Creatives, artists, scientists, researchers, and academics
Collaborative jobs based on complex relationships that require empathy and compassion (nurses, emergency plumbers, caregivers, and teachers)
How Will Automation Change the Purpose and Meaning of Work?
In his 1930 essay called “Economic Prospects for our Grandchildren,” economist John Maynard Keynes predicted a 15-hour work week. But, especially in the last 20 years, in particular with the widespread use of computer and mobile technology, we work longer hours — and many of us for less money.
Well-applied automation could raise productivity and still provide freedom, which Aristotle said was the highest attainment. What would such a work life look like? Also for some cultures — especially in certain parts of the United States — labor is considered particularly upright and honorable (think: “idle hands make the Devil’s work”). In 1932, Bertrand Russell wrote that “a great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by the belief in the virtuousness of work, and that the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organized diminution of work.” How will some people cope with if they don’t have a job filling their day?
And what about employers? Already, self-automation (wherein employees automate their jobs to increase productivity and reduce effort) has resulted in inventive employees losing jobs, while others hide their clever creations for fear of losing the intellectual property devoted to automation, fear of losing the job should employees discover that a program can simply be run from a CD for fraction of the cost, or even from a sense of shame from finishing workloads with minimal effort. Or, as programming skills once gave job-hunters a unique advantage, self-automation could come to be seen as another skill — will introducing efficiencies become part of the job description?
More Interesting Work
Although people tend to initially fear the idea of machines taking over jobs, they forget that machines largely take away the boring repetitive tasks. When that happens, humans take up other, more creative work.
The quality of the work experience will also improve, as Kirkwood explains with the example of a call center where many of the tasks currently involve searching, filling out and routing forms. These are the types of tasks a robot can easily do — possibly even better than a human — while leaving humans to devote creative energy to problem solving, which creates a better customer and employee experience.
As Kirkwood explains further, “Ultimately, the number of people running corporate functions in accounting and industry specific areas will reduce over time as more and more of that becomes automated. But I respect a concomitant increase in the number of people working in customer service, customer experience, because it’s the customer intimacy that’s going to be key to differentiating business. If you don’t get customer relations right, there will be no business, no matter how efficient.”
It turns out that automation is not a tech tool, but a culture change tool. “That, we didn’t expect,” says Kirkwood. With efficiencies, companies find themselves turning towards their employees.
“Businesses go into automation and humans become much more efficient, much more productive. And [more] importantly, [they are] much happier in their jobs because they’re not having to do those boring mundane repetitive tasks that the robot now does.”
Kirkwood quotes the CEO of Irish insurance firm Generali Link, Karl Nolan as saying, “Since we’ve put in automation into our business, the mood music has changed. We have happier employees, and we now measure our service in terms of compliments, rather than complaints.”
A Seamless Culture of Continual Improvement in the Future of Work
According to Deloitte’s philosophy on the future of work, “For most companies, the traditional path to value creation — despite years of growth-focused slogans and reorganizations — is simply too narrow, centered on cost-cutting and operating efficiencies.” They see endless opportunity in creating value and meaning for customers and believe that rather than having employees perform routine daily, work would embrace four characteristics:
Identifying unseen problems and opportunities
Developing approaches to solve problems and address opportunities
Iterating and learning (reflecting) based on the impact achieved
Further, the Deloitte writers concluded that all team members (not just certain teams or managers) would engage in finding and resolving what they call “unseen” problems.
Essentially, continuous quality improvement could become a way of working, rather than an added effort.
Nichols agrees: “It’s tough to step away from whatever you’re doing to make improvements. It’s difficult to step away from the monster if your working a 10 or 12 hour shift. How do you intervene to remove the cause of errors?”
Will Work Automation Dumb Us Down?
But what skills and knowledge do we lose by giving functionality and power over machines? In other words, will robots dumb us down? Nichols doesn’t think so. “Skills that were in demand in manufacturing work suddenly become skills used in hobbies,” he suggests. “We don’t hand weld in manufacturing, but people use those skills in their hobbies. This also goes for the thousands who grow food gardens, brew beer in basements, sew clothing, and weave fabric. As manufacturing costs decrease for various reasons, tools and supplies become cheaper so that activities that may once have been prohibitively expensive for the individual now become affordable.
“If we’re not all consumed by the need to work,” says Nichols, “we can pursue these activities.”
Working Beside Machines
Both Nichols and Kirkwood agree that as time goes on, we will be less conscious of the technology. Nichols gives as an example Amazon and other vendors who provide automatic top offs of regular orders.
“There’s no need to interact with a person unless there’s a problem.” He says. “When printing first arrived in the 15th century, everyone who could wanted to print anything they could. But as the novelty dissipated, writers became more selective in their printing projects.”
Kirkwood points to computer scientist and entrepreneur Andrew Ng who said automation will be in the background like electricity and we will largely forget about it, unless it’s not available. “In time the RPA and AI elements will just disappear because they’ll just be used everywhere and essentially be invisible,” Kirkwood explains.
New Attitudes in the Future of Work
The human body transforms itself approximately every 7 years, replacing cells bit by bit. So too do cultural attitudes change over time. By 2022, 80 percent of the population will be millennials or younger. The term “Snowflake Generation” is used as a pejorative for people who supposedly frequently ghost employers by not showing up for existing jobs, the first day of work, or even interviews. Are they slacking or are they leveraging a capriciousness and power formerly exclusive to employers? The gig economy is often portrayed in a dire light of unpredictability and lack of commitment from employers. But many people of all ages now choose to work freelance, as independent contractors.
“That’s just the way that millennials think,” reasons Kirkwood. “They’re not prepared to put up with the crap that we’ve put up with over the last 30 years. So it’s both the fact that organizations are changing because they have to to attract these types of people. They don’t want to work any other way. And frankly I can’t blame them.”
The 4Cs of Educating for the Future of Work
More than a decade ago, after extensive research, the National Education Association (NEA) determined which of the 21st century skills were most instrumental to education and developed the concept of the 4Cs: creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, and communication. Job experts followed suit and found that the 4Cs were as crucial to employment success as they were to academic success. Here’s a further description of the 4Cs as they apply to the workplace:
Creativity: Creating products, designing processes, solving problems, and taking new approaches
Critical Thinking: Analyzing and evaluating decisions and ideas and finding new perspectives
Collaboration: Working with other people, including negotiating, persuading, and resolving differences
Communication: Communicating effectively both verbally and non-verbally, including sharing ideas, asking questions, and using effective body language.
What Is the Future of Work?
The world of work is in a state of change. The Industrial Age concept of the 9-to-5 workday is fading. In a world where half the people are under the age of 30 and globally connected through the internet, why wouldn’t they choose to work with mobile devices and Wi-Fi, where and how they want to work?
Amidst this new level of convenience however, it will be more challenging than ever to maintain a work-life balance in this always-on culture.
Professionals used to enter the workforce with high school, trade school, or university training and spend their entire career strengthening those skills. Now, the half life of a skill is 5 years: expect to spend your life gaining new knowledge and skills The concept of a job for life won’t exist — expect to change work often.
More than that, people will want meaningful work, work that is creative and immersive and fulfills their passion — and that involves more than routine number crunching and filing. Defining and guiding such work will be hybrid leaders who can adapt and change leadership styles based on requirements and context.
How to Prepare for the Future of Work
The future of work presents challenges and opportunities for companies and individuals alike. While companies and government organizations have a responsibility to consider how automation and flux impact the way people work, never before has the onus been so heavily on the individual in terms of preparing oneself and their children for the future.
Because automation previously caused the displacement of many unskilled workers, it may be natural to anticipate a culture shock among older workers. Automation and computers are already so pervasive that adjustment may simply involve upskilling. While some in mid-career may require training and adjustment, Nichols believes that older people will simply transition out to retirement.
In terms of skill requirements, basic tech skills will be a must, which most people in the developed world already have. In other parts of the world where people could benefit from digitization but lack the skills needed, some organizations have stepped up to fill this challenge. Google Saathi (Internet of Friendship) was started in India to teach rural women how to use the internet. With the infrastructure and knowledge, lines to opportunity open to them, working as local distributors for telecommunication products, such as phones, collecting data for government and other research projects, and more.
The labor market is in a state of considerable flux, and that fact has caused a justifiable level of anxiety among the workforce. Largely attributable to automation and dramatic economic changes, the following steps can help you prepare for the future of work:
Ensure economic and productivity growth.
Foster business dynamism.
Evolve education systems and learning in order to change the workplace.
Think about how the private sector can drive training.
Create incentives for private-sector investment to treat human capital like other capital.
Explore public-private partnerships to stimulate investment in enabling infrastructure.
Invest in human capital.
Embrace technology-enabled solutions.
Innovate how humans work alongside machines.
Improve labor-market dynamism.
Rethink transition support and safety nets for employees and contractors.
Embrace AI and automation solutions.
Focus on job creation.
Diversify Your Skills for the Future of Work
While particularly in the US, it seems that gaps exist in STEM education, STEM won’t necessarily be all that’s required. In the future of automation and AI, it will be less about us trying to understand technology and more about tech trying to understand us. As this Gallup article says, “There is a common belief that STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) competencies are going to be the main competitive advantage for organizations as well as individuals. While advanced technical expertise will undoubtedly be extremely valuable, a relatively small number of specialized experts is likely to suffice. AI tech development processes are becoming both more efficient and more accessible to non-techies, and this is broadening the market scope beyond technical experts.”
Of considerable importance will be applied technology skills. Applied technology skills differ from hard tech skills, such as programming and coding, and are the tech skills used by employees outside the IT or engineering departments. Applied technology involves knowing the right technology to use to solve problems, including such skills as editing graphics in Photoshop or Canva, or even using Excel spreadsheets.
In addition, the acquisition of skills must be ongoing. No longer will 12 or 16 years of classroom learning alone prepare anyone for 40 or 50 years of work. There’s no guarantee that one set of skills will be valuable in 20 years. Successful citizens of the future will continue to learn throughout their lifetime. And everyone — children and adults — needs to learn how to learn. Future success depends on the skills to process information, the motivation and direction to learn on your own, and an interest not in specifics, but in generalities — in essence, the liberal arts education.
As structured, routine work is automated, remaining will be the projects requiring the qualities and abilities that only humans can offer: creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, and communication.
Finally, both new and seasoned workers need to try new things. Ask where your interests map in the work world and seize those opportunities. Consider that challenging yourself creates opportunities for your success and happiness.
The Gig Economy for the Future of Work
The gig economy is often framed as a reflection of a lack of full time jobs and reluctance of employers to pay benefits. In fact, contract work — also called gig work — may offer more choices in and control over how you earn income, the type of choices that are theoretically already available in your personal life.
Although life-long employment with one company largely disappeared at least a generation ago, mid-career and more advanced employees may still find the intellectual and emotional transition to non-employment work arrangements difficult. On the other hand, millennials are used to and seek temporary employment. By some accounts, almost half of millennials already work in freelance employment. In the US and EU, 20-30 percent of population work independently. More than 50 percent of those in non-employment work arrangements also have a regular job which they are supplementing, or are students, retirees, or caregivers. It’s thought that for 30 percent of freelancers this arrangement is the only option, but as many as 70 percent work independently by choice.
In the future, you may work several well-paid gigs concurrently (the type of work practiced today by freelance graphic artists and writers). Or you may string together contracts with one or multiple companies. By some accounts, most income earners in the U.S. will be freelance by 2027, with as many as 70 percent of all workers in freelance jobs.
Networking and the Internet Enable the Increase in Independent Work and Entrepreneurship
Digital talent pools should improve matching between workers and jobs. Some prognosticators promise that happy temporary employment unions will result from the sophisticated recruiting algorithms in platforms, such as LinkedIn. But the web also provides tools and markets to microentrepreneurs. Freelancers already offer their services on digital platforms, producing and shipping small lots of objects through Shapeways, selling new or rescued goods on Etsy, and helping others through gig companies such as Uber, Lyft, or Task Rabbit.
More people may actually work if work were flexible, including parents and students who could work around other responsibilities. If more young people and women, such as mothers, had access to digital work, more would be employed. If the contributions of women alone were leveraged, economic contribution would equate to $12 trillion.
The web and technology like tablets and smartphones have already freed people from the confines of the cubicle. But we haven’t experienced anything yet. With the advent of 5G networks, sophisticated AI and AR capabilities can follow us anywhere — at home, in our cars, in remote places — allowing us to work and others to provide us with a full platter of services as this fourth industrial revolution calls us to use our flexibility, brains and emotions more than our brawn.
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