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It’s not the robots you need to worry about

Category: Industry News, Automation, robots

It’s not the robots you need to worry about

Automation is all around us, says Robert Jeffery, and it’s knowledge workers who have most to lose

All of a sudden, you can’t move for robots. Foxconn, which wants to build a worker army comprising one million droids, has announced plans for a factory where little robots will assemble even bigger robots like Russian dolls in reverse. Former universities minister David Willetts says we’ll soon have so many of them they’ll force “dramatic changes in the pattern of work”. Willetts is known in Conservative circles as “Two Brains” so he must be right.

But though robots are always fascinating (see People Management’s take on the topic last year) the more significant trend is the shift to greater automation they represent. Automation isn’t a new concept, of course – Ford’s production lines of a century ago represented the first attempt to reduce the requirements of labour by introducing machines – but most of it is unreported and decidedly undramatic.

What’s most interesting is that automation today isn’t reshaping production lines. It’s knowledge workers who are taking the hit: thanks to better software and the limitless capacity of cloud computing, we need fewer brokers to make trades or healthcare technicians to diagnose ailments. Machines (ordinary PCs, with no sweeping arms or etched-on friendly faces in sight) can do it all for us at the touch of a button.

When I got the chance to discuss the trend recently with Tom Davenport, Babson College professor of information technology and author of Big Data@Work, he seemed convinced of its significance: “So far it has primarily been at the low-to-medium level of organisations. A lot of customer interaction jobs have been eliminated through automation, for example, and people are talking a lot now about the possibility of autonomous vehicles eliminating taxi drivers, truck drivers and so on.

“But my sense is that the next category to worry about this is higher-end knowledge workers – the lawyers, professors, accountants and doctors who have already seen successful efforts to automate aspects of the job. Their jobs won’t be eliminated altogether, but the demand for them will be reduced.”

In his book, Average is Over, the economist Tyler Cowen predicts that before long only 10-15 per cent of us will have the combination of knowledge and creative intelligence to outperform the machines. The rest will be reduced to worker drones serving our mechanical overlords. HR is one of the professions more immune to this trend – most of the repetitive tasks have to some degree been automated already, and the strategic and human interactional elements that remain probably can’t be replicated by a machine – but it will affect every organisation.

At the very least, it means that for the first time in the modern era, all that talk about “future proofing your career” isn’t just an attempt to sell self-help books. If you can imagine a way a machine could do your job, some geek in Silicon Valley is busy writing the code to make it a reality.

 

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