Automation and robotics are coming to a workspace near you. Artificial Intelligence (AI), automation, robotics, and many other aspects of Industry 4.0, are gradually making inroads into our working lives. At least, that’s what leading commentators and researchers would have us believe. Are they right? And more importantly, should we be excited or concerned? (Here’s a manufacturer’s practical guide to the technologies driving Industry 4.0.)
Speaking at this year’s World Government Summit in Dubai on matters as diverse as electric cars, Mars colonisation and artificial super-intelligence, Tesla CEO Elon Musk said, “There will be fewer and fewer jobs that a robot cannot do better.”
In June this year, Andrew Bassat chief executive of Seek, a key player in the Australian jobs market, warned that the rate at which robots replace humans in the workplace will spark an employment crisis. Bassat told The Australian: “My view is that we have enough warning to know that we need to act with urgency to address this issue and can no longer afford to wait.”
This means automation and robotics must be bad for employment, right?
Not according to a 2016 study by McKinsey. The company’s research found that 60% of all jobs have 30% of activities that can be “technically automatable, based on technologies that are available today.” Unlike a previous 2013 Oxford University study, which scare mongered that machines would replace 50% of the US workforce in the next 20 years, McKinsey analysed 830 occupations and estimated that only 55 could be completely automated – that’s just 6.6%.
With the fear of job losses all but gone, the question we really want to know the answer to is this:
Could automation and robotics actually create jobs?
The Association for Advancing Automation stated in its whitepaper, Robots Fuel the Next Wave of US Productivity and Job Growth (2015), that: “While not widely understood, the correlation between robotics implementation and employment growth is clear. Today’s robotics offer manufacturers improvements in efficiency that are driving up profits and employment.”
In simple terms, automation solves the challenge of repetitive, undesirable and dangerous work being done by humans. It delivers a lower cost alternative to human labour. Lower costs lead to lower prices. Lower prices make the product offer more appealing, which stimulates demand. This results in increased investment and a need to hire more people. It all seems straightforward in theory – but what’s the reality?
Take a look at Amazon
Amazon recently announced their intent to build a huge warehouse in Melbourne’s Dandenong area that will employ hundreds of people. This company is no newcomer to the deployment of robotics; Amazon has already invested in more than 45,000 robots, which operate in the warehouses to fetch products from different shelves.
Sure, Amazon’s use of robots has replaced part of jobs that humans could have done. But (and it’s a big “but”) it has enabled Amazon to keep prices low, expand their business and subsequently employ more people. As Robert Bruce, Amazon’s director of operations for Australia, said in a statement: “Over time, we will bring thousands of new jobs to Australia, and millions of dollars of investment, as well as opening up the opportunity for thousands of Australian businesses to sell at home and abroad through Amazon Marketplace.”
Goodbye old jobs. Hello new jobs.
Another argument for job creation is that, by replacing humans in repetitive, low-wage jobs, robots allow employees to move into more attractive (and less dangerous) roles. In this case, automation allows people the opportunity to focus on higher-level tasks such as creativity and know-how thinking.
Look at robots’ weaknesses and humans’ strengths. No matter how hard inventers try, robots do not yet have the ability to perform tasks such as negotiation or persuasion. They cannot generate new ideas and think creatively to solve problems.
This means jobs requiring emotional intelligence, creativity, and social skills are still very much in the human domain. When something goes wrong, a human needs to fix it. When a customer complains, a human needs to smooth things over.
Thanks to the rise of technology, there are already jobs in existence now that didn’t exist a couple of decades ago, such as field service technicians, web developers, user-experience specialists, and network administrators.
Also, the more complex robotics and automation become, the more engineers and technicians who will be required to develop, program, maintain, operate and fix them. For example, when Smart Steel Systems in Brisbane began using artificially intelligent welding and cutting equipment, the company was able to actually increase its workforce – it now employs software, mechatronics and robotics engineers where it didn’t before.
We cannot say for certain whether automation and robotics will lead to job growth, but one thing’s for sure – it’s changing the nature of our workforce (we talked about how next generation robotics are transforming manufacturing in this article).
Recruitment agency Randstad reported recently that 84% of Australians surveyed are not concerned that automation will affect their future job prospects, while 77% believe that they won’t need to change careers in the next 10 years. Yet the workplace of the future is going to look very different. Whether in the warehouse, on the production line or through virtual sales agents, automation technologies and robotics are here to stay. There’s no doubt that some jobs will become obsolete and the introduction of robotics will force people to acquire new skills. In turn, this transformative process will lead to more jobs. New jobs that require different skills and address different needs.
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