Work has been as old as the history of man. It has undergone different transformations at different eras of human history. At each era, the nature, scope and composition of work had always depended on the knowledge and technological levels attained by man. In today’s world, we are faced with advanced level of technology that almost everything we earlier thought was impossible is now possible and being executed with super technical dexterity and incredible simplicity.
Scientific fiction writers were inspired by the idea of automation. Science fiction is no longer fiction today as companies increasingly use robots on production lines or algorithms to optimize their logistics, manage inventory, and carry out other core business functions. Although the process of automation of processes dates back to centuries ago, the pace and scope have dramatically increased over the years. The pertinent questions usually asked are; how will workplace be affected by automation? What is the place of human employees? How does automation affect employment? What is the likely impact on productivity and efficiency in nations’ economies?
With the explosive revolution in robotics, data and analytics, artificial intelligence and machine learning, we are experiencing an advanced system of automation where machines outperform human beings in a wide range of work activities, including those that require cognitive capabilities. For example, some hospitals now regularly use automated systems for storing and dispensing medication in their pharmacies, eliminating human picking errors, and also have automated haul and transport for their clinical supplies. Such developments in areas of cognitive tasks abound such as financial-service transactions or route optimization for firms such as UPS. Now, activities that were adjudged to necessarily require human judgment and experience are being encroached into by artificial intelligence. According to a study by Mckinsey, it was observed that we are living in a new automation age in which robots and computers can not only perform a range of routine physical work activities better and more cheaply than humans, but are also increasingly capable of accomplishing activities that include cognitive capabilities. These include making tacit judgments, sensing emotion, or even driving.
Other arguments for automation include the fact that performance gains such as increased profit, increased throughput and productivity, improved safety, and higher quality, reduced variability, waste reduction, and higher customer satisfaction which sometimes exceed the benefits of labor substitution. Automated driving of cars and trucks could not only reduce the labor costs associated with drivers; it could also potentially improve safety (the vast majority of accidents on our highways are the result of driver errors) and fuel efficiency. Australian company Fastbrick Robotics has developed a robot,the Hadrian X, that can lay 1,000 standard bricks in one hour – a task that would take two human bricklayers the better part of a day or longer to complete.
Other practical benefits of automation abound in today’s companies’ operations. For instance, in a study conducted by Mckinsey, it is stated that “Rio Tinto has deployed automated haul trucks and drilling machines at its mines in Pilbara, Australia, and says it is seeing 10–20 percent increases in utilization there as a result. Google has applied artificial intelligence from its DeepMind machine learning to its own data justifys, cutting the amount of energy they use by 40 percent. In financial services, automation in the form of “straight-through processing,” where transaction workflows are digitized end-to-end, can increase the scalability of transaction throughput by 80 percent, while concurrently reducing errors by half. Safety is another area that could benefit from increased automation. For example, of the approximately 35,000 road death in the United States annually, about 94 percent are as a result of human error or choice.”
According to a study, The future that works, almost half the activities people are paid almost $16 trillion in wages to do in global economy have the potential to be automated by adopting currently demonstrated technology. The study also went ahead to estimate that automation could raise productivity growth by 0.8 to 1.4 percent annually.
Data from the Robotics Industries Association (RIA), one of the largest robotic automation advocacy organizations in North America, reveals just how prevalent robots are likely to be in the workplace of tomorrow. During the first half of 2016 alone, North American robotics technology vendors sold 14,583 robots worth $817m to companies around the world. The RIA further estimates that more than 265,000 robots are currently deployed at factories across the country, placing the US third worldwide in terms of robotics deployments behind only China and Japan.
While much of what we have discussed so far are some of the existing and touted advantages often associated with the deployment of automation and robotics at workplace, there are arguments that seem to observe negative consequences of automation and robotics. Much of the current debate about automation has focused on the potential for mass unemployment. For instance, In a recent report, the World Economic Forum predicted that robotic automation will result in the net loss of more than five million jobs across fifteen developed countries by 2020, a conservative estimate. Another study, conducted by the International Labor Organization, states that as many as 137m workers across Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam – approximately 56% of the total workforce of those countries – are at risk of displacement by robots, particularly workers in the garment manufacturing industry.
However, proponents of robotic automation routinely point to the fact that, for the most part, robots cannot service or program themselves – yet. In theory, this will create new, high-skilled jobs for technicians, programmers and other newly essential roles. However, it is observed that for every job created by robotic automation, several more will be eliminated entirely. At scale, this disruption will have a devastating impact on our workforce. One individual who understands this well is a world renowned expert in robotics technology Dr. Jing Bing Zhang, who is also a research director for global marketing intelligence firm IDC. He and his team studied how commercial robotics is likely to shape future’s workforce. In a study IDC’s FutureScape: Worldwide Robotics 2017 Predictions report, Zhang and his team reported thus “By 2018, the reports says, almost one-third of robotic deployments will be smarter, more efficient robots capable of collaborating with other robots and working safely alongside humans. By 2019, 30% or more of the world’s leading companies will employ a chief robotics officer, and several governments around the world will have drafted or implemented specific legislation surrounding robots and safety, security and privacy. By 2020, average salaries in the robotics sector will increase by at least 60% – yet more than one-third of the available jobs in robotics will remain vacant due to shortages of skilled workers”.
The arguments have always been that automation and robotics will affect human employment. However, what most experts argue is that workers might not necessarily be affected, it’s only skill set that might change. In that case modern employees need to retrain themselves to meet up with the new requirements that emerge at the workplace.
Zhang said automation and robotics will definitely impact lower-skilled people, which is unfortunate. “The only way for them to move up or adapt to this change is not to hope that the government will protect their jobs from technology, but look for ways to retrain themselves. No one can expect to do the same thing for life. That’s just not the case any more.”
Whatever it is, it seems the future of work is automation and robotics. Education, training and retraining seem the option for workforce to remain relevant in the scheme of things at workplace.