A workforce that evolves in tandem with automation is as much about offloading mundane tasks to machines as it is about how we use the liberated time and money that results. It’s not necessarily about doing less work; it’s about doing better, more meaningful work.
There are a number of popular arguments for and against the widespread adoption of automation into the workforce. As much as it seems an inevitability of our world, we still do have the time (in fact, we have the obligation) to figure out exactly how we want to use automation to improve the quality of our lives and our businesses. We can choose to write the rules deliberately, rather than simply acquiesce to the fears and whims of inherent unknowns.
Evaluating the pros and cons of new technologies
While most of us can agree that it’s great to automate all of the boring, mind-numbing things we’d rather not do at work, there are still so many questions about the social and economic implications of automation and AI. We often wonder what the responsible use of those technologies really looks like. Answering these questions forces us to take an honest look at what the best use of our time, energy and creativity is. We have to be clear about what we value and how we want to utilize technology to optimize our professional and personal experiences. How can we use AI and automation to make innovation and authentic human connections more effortless and meaningful, rather than, well…obsolete?
At a basic level, the question that we are trying to answer is whether these advancements will ultimately make things better or worse — and for whom. That is, can we look forward to vast improvements in productivity, freedom from boring work, and improved quality of life? Or should we focus warily on the threat automation poses to jobs, disruptions to organizations, and strains on the social fabric?
We have to decide what merits more of our attention: the positive implications of automation and AI — or the negative.
Preserving human connection in automation
Many people fear that widespread adoption of automation will have a deleterious effect on our job market and our economy, as robots and machines begin performing most of the work humans do, thus rendering us expendable…and possibly broke. Others fear the increasing dissolution of basic social skills such as in-person conversations that do not involve a screen or digital device or, hey, asking someone out without the aid of social media or a messaging device. There is a very legitimate concern that the delegation of all professional and social transactions to a fully automated sphere would negate the need for basic human faculties such as empathy, emotional intelligence and the ability to read social cues. This would, indeed, be a step backward.
Alternatively, we can imagine that automation and the intentional use of AI technology could have the opposite effect. Automation has the potential to free us from the drudgery that so many experience in their daily work life and open us to more opportunities for professional fulfillment, allowing us to develop the best of our talents. And, perhaps most importantly, by using automation to carry out repetitive and tedious tasks, we could free ourselves from the screen, creating more time for valuable human-to-human interaction in our daily lives.
These opposing scenarios constitute the paradoxical nature of the inevitable fusion of automation into our workforce.
What exactly are automation and AI?
The subject of automating tasks and even entire roles in our current workforce is met with a lot of confusion and misinformation, especially when talking about the differences between AI and machine learning, automation’s often ill-defined relatives. For the sake of the rest of this discussion, let’s define the differences between those terms, which are so often used interchangeably and, thus, incorrectly:
AI: AI is the theory and development of computer systems enabling non-human devices to perform tasks normally requiring human intelligence such as visual perception, speech recognition and decision-making.
Automation: Automation is generally defined as the creation of technology that can control and monitor the production and delivery of various goods and services.
Let’s break it down a little further with some real-world examples to help us understand the types of jobs that automation and AI can be used for in our world today.
- Automating high volume, low complexity, routine administrative tasks
- Real-world example: A call center — Automation can replace some parts of the job of a call center representative, such as requesting customer identification information and tracking the status of a delivery. But certain tasks, such as talking clients through their frustration with a faulty product or mishandled order will, for now, remain a human task.
- Machines taking on more complex tasks by applying things such as pattern recognition using sensors and algorithms to carry out various tasks
- Real-world example: The Amazon Go retail store in Seattle — The store does not have cashiers or checkout lanes. Customers pick up their items and go, as sensors and algorithms automatically charge their Amazon account. In this case, automation has replaced the work elements of scanning purchases and processing payment. Other elements of the job of store associates are still done by humans, including advising in-store customers about product features.
- Robots moving autonomously and interacting or collaborating with humans through the combination of sensors, AI, and mechanical robots
- Real-world example: Driverless cars — With driverless vehicles, robotics and algorithms interact with human drivers to navigate through traffic. While the human “co-pilot” no longer does the work of routine navigation and piloting, they still do things like observing the driverless operation and stepping in to assist with unusual or dangerous situations. What is often overlooked is that the human co-pilot is actually “training” the AI-driven social robotics, because every time the human makes a correction, the circumstances and results are “learned” by the AI system.
These examples illustrate the endless possibilities to apply automation. Among companies that reported automation success, 72% credited utilizing automation strategy as a top contributor to their achievements. Therefore, automated businesses processes can provide opportunities for growth and advantages.
According to the World Economic Forum, roles involving redundant tasks will decrease by 6.4% in the workplace by 2025. This doesn’t mean these roles will be completely eliminated — rather, professions adapted to this new technology are expected to increase by 5.7%. In other words, automation is likely to change the vast majority of occupations — at least to some degree — which will result in redefining traditional work roles and transforming business processes.
Here’s why this might be a dream come true for so many professionals in today’s labor market:
Currently, 1 in 3 professionals cite boredom as the reason for leaving their jobs. This statistic suggests that the work we do is not challenging us, is not requiring the best of our abilities or talents…nowhere near it in fact. This may be one of the reasons for epidemic levels of disenchantment in the workforce today. While these findings might be lamented as reflecting the impoverished nature of our work lives, they also suggest the potential to generate a greater amount of meaningful work. They force us to imagine how much better it could be.
Imagine a world where no one had to come in and do mundane tedious work while sitting slouched at a computer for 8+ hours in order for the world to run effectively and progress to continue. This kind of transformation could occur as automation replaces more routine and repetitive tasks, allowing for more human creativity and intelligence in the workforce. Of course, not everyone can or will want to perform at a higher level; many people will continue to function at a mediocre level even if given an alternative. But for a great many of us who do harbor untapped potential that is stifled by the daily grind, automation offers the possibility to open new professional pathways.
The power of automation and AI beyond the workplace
Thinking on a larger scale, beyond the professional context of how automation may affect our lives — might the automation of mundane, repetitive jobs eventually help build a society of healthier, wealthier and more fulfilled individuals? Would people enjoy their lives more if given more time to do life-enriching activities such as travel, be in nature, spend time with friends? With more time outside the cubicle, would people have healthier relationships and family lives and better understand each other? The vision isn’t only about what we can automate so that we can do MORE work (even if that work is more creative and interesting, but to use automation to help rewrite what a day in the life of a regular working citizen could be like.
Let’s say we take the optimistic view in which technology can lift us up, free our time, and release us from soul-crushing boredom. To some people, this may genuinely sound like an idealistic pipe dream, considering all the ways technology has removed us from physical reality, seducing us into “connecting” through screens and digital devices. Indeed, technological advances over the past 20 years have wreaked a lot of havoc on physical forms of communication. (Remember eye contact? Remember in-person break ups? What about watching where you are going when walking down the street, rather than staring at your device? People even used to talk to each other while waiting in line instead of Instagramming.) While many people talk about the ways AI technologies can improve our ability to understand and connect to one another, it’s clear that it takes a very deliberate effort (read: willpower) to actually make this happen in a world mesmerized by machines.
The version of the future in which robots control the world is a product of our collective imagination. As with any tool, how we use it is more significant than if we use it. Using intelligent automation tools requires specific intention; it requires that we, to some extent, reach consensus on the innate value of human interaction and relationships and the importance of fostering creative exploration. This future, as much as its dark alternative looms, is a possible outcome in a rapidly advancing and increasingly automated world.
Technology marches relentlessly forward, and it would be foolish to argue otherwise, but some things remain fundamental, and people-to-people communication will continue to be one of them. Humanity will continue to persevere in pursuit of our highest technological potential, including the automation of many of our current job functions, so our best move is to decide here and now what the greater purpose of that technological advancement is in our lives … and how to master it.