The automation revolution is raising increasingly interesting questions about the nature of the workplace – and about what it might look like in the future.
The direct challenge posed by robots to certain kinds of low-skilled job is the subject of long-standing scrutiny, but today it represents only part of the story. As innovations in robotic engineering, artificial intelligence and machine learning multiply, a far greater diversity of occupations than ever before is set to be directly affected by one form of automation or another.
To the issue of how many traditional jobs will eventually be automated should these days be added the possibly more fundamental and far-ranging question: in what ways will automation change work across the board? What impact will technology have on jobs generally? And if, because of automation, there are certain things that we as workers will do less, what – if anything – will we do more?
The workplace of the future will require, most obviously, a generalised technological upskilling. More robots, more devices, more AI will all require competent operation and maintenance if investment in them is not to backfire. The problems presented by a workforce undertrained in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics have for some time been foreseen by governments and businesses anxious to remedy the so-called STEM talent shortfall.
But it is not just a question of extra roboticists and system engineers. All future lines of work will call for increased IT proficiency as software applications become ever more pervasive. Cloud computing, in particular, is establishing itself as a vital feature of automated organisations, enabling businesses naturally to sync operations both internally and across partnerships. Within such companies, it is bound to become standard practice for employees to coordinate and share their work digitally.
On the one hand, then, more tech-savvy. But at the same time, most commentators anticipate for the human workforce a growing specialism in the soft skills of creativity and interpersonal contact. It has indeed been argued that such skills have a vital role to play within organisations that are strongly automated.
Changes in the high street bank are often cited to illustrate the point. With the advent of ATMs and online banking, many employees have moved from routine money-handling activities to tasks designed to humanise an otherwise potentially impersonal bank-customer interface. This work ranges from putting walk-in clients at their ease, to assessing their individual requirements with sympathy and intuition, even to thinking creatively about what financial products might suit them.
This kind of work requires no less training than upskilling in technology; and businesses are finding, to their profit, that it pays to value skill-sets not historically thought of as in themselves marketable. It is part of a discovery process currently underway that two distinct classes of work – the automated and the human – carry the potential not only to complement each other, but to outperform together the capabilities of either on its own.
The success of cobots is a case in point. Where the field of industrial robotics once conjured up images of huge welding and drilling machines caged off from the rest of the factory, it is now as likely to signify tabletop arms passing machine components to human co-workers further down a workbench, or the thousand-strong fleets of merchandise pickers and transporters that share the floor with people in any Amazon warehouse.
It is not just their accessibility which lies behind cobots’ success; it is their versatility. Unlike older purpose-built robots, these machines can be taught new tasks on the job, and on the spot, by their human co-workers, in rapid response to changing demands. In this respect the human-robot partnership represents, amongst other things, the manufacturer’s or supplier’s most effective response to a less static marketplace.
As with hardware, so with the digital: opportunities for artificial intelligence are increasingly dovetailing with opportunities for human intelligence in order to establish, in concert, a new total efficiency of effort.
Working with information, for example, often begins with compiling quantities of raw data: from spotting potential bugs and security gaps in web apps and servers to identifying documents pertinent to a legal case during the discovery phase. The technology is now comfortably in place to have this data-trawling done automatically – and consequently more extensively and more accurately than before.
Even as it replaces such old-style human labour, however, automation creates new demand for further, more challenging work in its place: that of handling the data, of interpreting it and applying it creatively and practically to the day’s agenda in ways not catered for by programmed algorithms.
It will in particular involve human beings taking on the challenge of material that automation cannot handle: the exceptional, the anomalous and the problematic. This might mean something as simple as a company book keeper being freed from the onus of collating a week’s worth of expenses claims so that they can investigate properly the one that was made without a receipt.
As the working relationship between automated systems and human employees grows both more prevalent and more complex, concerns have been raised that technological advances are not pursued at a pace or in a manner that puts employees at a disadvantage. In the UK, for example, the Institute for the Future of Work advises the architects of the Fourth Industrial Revolution on strategies of innovation that are both productive and palatable.
Where businesses do invest in worker-friendly automation, however, not only will their employees’ occupational experiences be more stimulating and varied, but automation’s own potential might be better tapped. An Accenture study last year found that properly understanding and embracing the human-machine paradigm could boost businesses’ revenue by up to 38%.
The advantages that automation promises to bring to the workplace may in this way be more human-friendly than many had at one time anticipated.
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