Automation is good, so long as you know exactly where to put the machine.
We are living in an era where technologies like big data, artificial intelligence, robotics, IoT, blockchain are seeping their way into our lives. They are affecting how we live and work- from IBM’s Watson being deployed to do medical diagnostics through AI, to voice-powered personal assistants like Alexa Cortana, and Siri, to hundreds of driverless trucks to transport minerals by Rio Tinto- there are several examples of advanced technology in use today. Such technology-based disruptions are bringing a big shift in economies and also posing many interesting questions to us: Will there be a need for us to work in future or our jobs will be replaced by automation?
A recent report by McKinsey Global Institute1, states that automation will take over around 800 million jobs by 2030 worldwide. For India, the statistics are equally staggering- a report by World Bank2 suggests that 69 percent of jobs can apparently be replaced by automation. Some industries and sectors will be hit hard like, India’s IT services industry may lose 6.4 lakhs low-skilled positions to automation by 20213. Multiple factors, like rising demands, need to increase efficiency & productivity, rising cost of labor and falling cost of technology are shaping such trends. A thought that half of today’s jobs will be petered out to automation is intimidating as it may lead to outcomes such as unemployment, economic downturn, and identity crises for many.
If we take a peek into the evolution of automation, we find that it has traversed a long way from just being a machine doing dirty and dangerous4 tasks (e.g., heavy industrial equipment) in the 19th century, to taking away the dull clerical chores in the 20th century to now, where it is actually helping us take informed decisions reliably and faster. Yes! Automation has smartly made its incursion in the knowledge-based work and helping organizations make data-based smarter decisions. We are witnessing that technology has been advancing from the last 200-300 years, and human beings have always found a new thing up the value chain to work on. If automation is taking away our jobs, then it is also leading to the creation of more specialized jobs for us – jobs which will require oodles of creativity, specialized skills, and human touch. Tom Friedman on being asked about automation taking over over human work said that “Technology and even AI are just dumb systems, and it’s all about the human values we bring to them” 5. Therefore, the need is to get over this pessimist view around automation and rather focus on increasing its impact manifold through Augmentation — that is, making machines work in tandem with humans to collect and process data, analyze it, and make decisions, to improve industrial processes, workplace efficiency, and customer experiences.
Augmentation combines humans and smart machines to enhance outcomes. The way doctors are working with IBM Watson is a great example of augmentation -IBM Watson with its deep cognitive computing skills assimilates vast amounts of patient information and interprets them reducing the time for doctors to make their diagnoses6.
Human beings have always found a new thing up the value chain to work on.
So, how can we ensure that going forward we create more and more augmented rather than automated workplaces where machines do not replace human beings and work alongside human beings to achieve a greater good for the world? Bill Gates7 has proposed to tax the robots and utilize the funds collected from this to retrain and financially support displaced workers. Also, encourage robotics companies to help the workers they displace.
According to Tom Friedman8, best companies are automating and augmenting to become most efficient and effective by creating STEMpathy jobs - that combine science, technology, engineering, and math with human empathy, the ability to connect with another human being. Organizations which will remodel their job roles to infuse creativity, human touch will ultimately take advantage of automation and have a more productive and happier workforce.
“One machine can do the work of fifty ordinary men, but no machine can do the work of one extraordinary man,” says famous author, Elbert Hubbard. Jobs that involve genuine creativity will not be lost, be it scientists, artists, doctors, musicians, etc. Also, jobs that involve complex human to human interactions such as nurses, relationship banking, political relations will be hard to replace. The next decade, therefore, should be focused on developing and augmenting such type of jobs and re-deployment of the workforce into such jobs. Organizations need to proactively train people to understand and work with technology. They also need to re-train people who have been displaced from their jobs. Technology should not be seen as an impediment to their growth rather it should be seen as an instrument to enhance productivity
Human beings are bestowed with intelligence to make intelligent decisions for them as well as for the whole world. We are at a crossroad in human history where whatever we choose to do will have a massive impact on our future. Therefore, the need is to channelize all our endeavors and efforts in the direction of improving lives of people so that we may all survive in the world ‘augmented’ by ‘automation’.