Automation technologies manufacture goods or provide labor with minimal human intervention. They can trace their origins as far back as the 16th century—and arguably further—but didn’t take off until the Industrial Revolution. In fact, automation as we know it is such a historically novel concept that the word itself wasn’t coined until 1948, as a way to describe Ford Motor Co.’s manufacturing process.

While we tend to think of automation in the guise of large factory floors, the automated age has influenced every facet of modern life, not just industry. Consider the average American home. Dryers, microwaves, and dishwashers automate processes that required immense manual labor for much of human history. And smart homes aim to take residential automation even further.

The question is, how far is too far? Automation has, without a doubt, improved lives and increased productivity, but some experts foresee a mass adoption of new automation technologies that will leave vast numbers of people unemployed, rendering them destitute and without prospects. 

David Epstein, the author of Range, predicts a different future. He doesn’t believe automation will be the death knell of human jobs. Rather, it will provide an opportunity to develop the skills that people, and only people, can excel at.

An expert’s take on automation

Epstein argues that automation is here, and it is “rapidly changing the world”. That change will alter the jobs we have, how we work, and the types of jobs we value socially. Yes, this scenario has played out before, but the scale will ramp up exponentially.

Unlike the automation doomsayers, however, Epstein doesn’t envision a future where robots squeeze people out of large portions of the job market. At least, such a future isn’t preordained. Instead, people will move into jobs requiring skills that are difficult to automate.

Epstein likens this future to the propagation of ATMs. Back in the day, pundits predicted that bank tellers would be laid off en masse as the machines took over. But the opposite happened. Banks became more efficient, leading to a trend of more banks opening and more tellers being hired. Today, tellers spend less time counting money (an easy task to automate) and more time building relationships with clients (tasks computers can’t do well).

The same may prove true for other industries. While automation outperforms people in tasks with black-and-white rules and systems—making Epstein’s chess analogy particularly apt—it has difficulties managing interpersonal skills, human behaviors, and problems that lack predetermined answers—i.e., tasks with a broader color palette.

Here, humans maintain their edge. With this in mind, we can more easily imagine a future where humans and machines form partnerships to produce maximum accuracy, proficiency, productivity, and personability. 

Is automation relevant for my business?

Automation’s pace has accelerated in recent years, and organizations that don’t adapt risk falling behind. According to the World Economic Forum’s The Future of Jobs Report 2020, 43 percent of businesses surveyed “indicate that they are set to reduce their workforce due to technological integration” and by 2025, “the time spent on current tasks at work by humans and machines will be equal”.

Lost jobs will be those that are repetitive and have strict processes to follow. These include driving, manufacturing, and food preparation, but don’t be fooled into believing only blue-collar jobs will be dominated by robo workers. White-collar jobs such as accounting, data entry, and office administration are also ripe for automation thanks to their black-and-white rule set.

That may sound like a page from an automation apocalypse, but the report also finds that the number of jobs created will surpass the number lost. That means there will still be plenty of jobs for people to perform. The determining factor will be what skills they bring to the team. The report agrees with Epstein’s assessment that the in-demand skills will be creative and interpersonal, such as adaptability, critical thinking, problem-solving, and self-management.

Is automation actionable today?

The World Economic Forum predicts a huge skills gap as automation increases its hold in the job market. This gap will require companies to reskill their employees and develop cultures that promote lifelong learning.

You can start preparing by adopting active learning programs. Rather than hoping your next hire will have critical skills, you can build those skills in-house. That investment will, in turn, generate social capital at your organization, such as trust, loyalty, and a team mindset.

You can also foster a perception of collaboration, not competition, between people and automation. Imagine, for example, a radiology AI that analyzes x-rays with accuracy and speeds no human can match. Does that mean radiologists are out of a job? Not at all. Rather than spend their days analyzing x-rays, radiologists will now have more time to invest directly in caring for their patients.

Imagine how a similar future could be shaped at your organization. 

Prepare your organization for the future of work with lessons ‘For Business‘ from Big Think Edge. At Edge, more than 350 experts, academics, and entrepreneurs come together to teach essential skills in career development and lifelong learning. Learn to innovate and stay ahead of the curve with lessons such as:

  • How to Digitally Transform Your Organization, with Tony Saldanha, Former VP of Global Shared Services and IT, Proctor & Gamble, and Author, Why Digital Transformations Fail
  • Breaking Through Learning Obstacles: Get Unstuck from a Thinking Rut, with Barbara Oakley, Professor of Engineering, Oakland University, and Author, Mindshift
  • The Power of Onlyness: Give Your People Permission to Co-Create the Future, with Nilofer Merchant, Marketing Expert and Author, The Power of Onlyness
  • Leading with Next-Generation KPIs: How Legacy Organizations Can Compete with Digital Natives, with Michael Schrage, Research Fellow, MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy, and Author, The Innovator’s Hypothesis
  • Proceed with Caution: Help Your Organization Help AI Change the World, with Gary Marcus, Professor of Psychology, NYU, and Author, Rebooting AI

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