Automation is extending its tendrils into every industry and area of life, and its impact varies just as much as its applications in different sectors and contexts.
When it comes to the big debate surrounding automation, it is the reconfiguration of the employment market to accommodate the changing needs of businesses that grabs the most attention. However, job automation saves lives and also has significant benefits of improving workplace safety.
The question is, which of these two factors will be the most important going forwards, and indeed is there even a genuine dichotomy here, or rather two mutually beneficial aspects of the same technological breakthrough?
Altering the job landscape
Critics of job automation point out that there is no getting away from the fact that millions of people will find their jobs rendered redundant as a result of automation.
While much of the focus is placed on people in low level employment, such as factory workers, technicians and drivers, there is also the prospect of highly educated professionals in prestigious industries also facing complications because of automation.
In isolation, such projections can seem like they will wreak havoc on an economic level, although digging into the figures a little more reveals that there are significant opportunities for growth, improvements to productivity and a range of other advantages that come along with automation.
Many businesses will be able to shrink their workforces without compromising on output volumes or revenue growth; some should see efficiency skyrocket and will thus generate more cash to reinvest in further expansion efforts and product innovations.
The good news for workers is that while automation will put paid to plenty of traditional roles, new opportunities will emerge in the wake of this revolution, which is where safety and life-saving comes into account.
Humanity has toiled tirelessly for millennia to claw itself out of a primitive state to the shining example of civilization that exists today. The main result of this is that back-breaking labor in very dangerous circumstances has been unavoidable, until now.
The industrial age saw even more peril brought into the workplace, with factory deaths and serious injuries a fact of life in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Even in the 21st century, around 6000 people die every day because of accidents at work. This staggering statistic is an indication that the human cost of progress and growth is still heartbreakingly high.
Because of this state of affairs, all businesses need to consider their responsibilities when it comes to keeping staff safe. And while the introduction of heavy machinery helped to lessen the physical burden on workers in manufacturing and agriculture over the past 100 years, this type of equipment is not without its own risks.
Job automation promises to pluck the flesh and blood team members out of such tricky scenarios, keeping them entirely separate from kit capable of mangling limbs and breaking bones, as well as shielding them from harmful substances and other perils of industry. Thus any business which wants to automate frontline roles which currently carry a higher risk of injury or death can legitimately pursue this route as a means to save lives, with workforce shrinkage and improved organizational agility coming lower down the agenda.
The one element of this debate which all experts and observers can agree on is that the transition towards a more automated world will not be straightforward, and will inevitably involve some level of disruption.
However, the most eager proponents of automation are also convinced that just because jobs will be lost, this does not mean that people will be entirely usurped by machines in many industries. Some even argue that the opposite is true, and that it is only by striking a balance and encouraging close working relationships between humans and the automated systems they use at work that sustainable growth will be achievable.
Those who were previously employed to get up close and personal with heavy equipment, risking life and limb in the process, can instead move to new roles where they will oversee the operation of automated systems and carry out maintenance where necessary.
In conjunction with this idea, it is important to point out that there are still roles in industry which automated systems and robotics are not currently capable of fulfilling, and will remain absent from for the foreseeable future. Decades of investment, research and development are still on the horizon, meaning that the transition to a new economic model brought about by automation is likely to take a lot longer than some might think, which should help make it more manageable.
Likewise there are customer-facing roles which are also suited far better to human workers rather than automated systems; the hospitality and entertainment sectors, for example, are likely to remain relatively untouched by automation for some time, at least on a certain level.
Learning from the past
One final thing to keep in mind when considering automation and examining its impact on workforce shrinkage and workplace safety, is that this is arguably one of the first revolutions in the history of commerce which will improve conditions for workers without any compromises in terms of the risks they face.
Predicting just how the future will pan out as job automation becomes more common is tricky, but businesses which want to succeed should put strategies in place now to prepare for these changes, as it could be good for growth as well as employee safety and satisfaction. This mirrors recent examples of how preparedness is vital when dealing with unforeseen crises and sudden market shifts.