Futurists have long warned about the impact of technology on our jobs. Some picture a scene from ‘The Jetsons’, with their highly-automated home of the future, complete with a robot maid. Others make grim predictions about the fourth industrial revolution, making even the most skilled workers obsolete. It's a topic that captures the imagination and plays into our hopes and fears.
One study by McKinsey predicts that by 2030, as many as 800 million jobs could be lost worldwide to automation. Technology was supposed to help us out and make our lives easier - but is it going to replace us altogether?
Automation is already here
When we talk about mass-automation, we usually imagine a distant, dystopian future. But, from self-service checkout tills to chatbots, chances are you’ve already encountered automation in your everyday life. And with COVID-19 making human contact higher-risk than before, and cash-strapped businesses looking to cut costs where they can, it’s easy to imagine a not-too-distant future where huge numbers of roles are replaced by technology.
The threat of automation used to hang over a few specific industries, like manufacturing or retail. But lately it seems like no sector is safe. In fact, a recent survey found that a quarter of office workers worldwide worry about losing their job to automation. Our fears come down to a few factors: technology is more efficient than us; with machine learning, technology will soon be smarter than us; technology doesn’t ask for sick pay or a raise. These are legitimate concerns - so, should we all be worried?
It certainly seems like technology is taking on increasingly specialist and complex jobs. Look at journalism, for example. Creating quality news content needs judgement, creativity and nuance. You might think a task like this would be better done by humans than machines - but journalism is one sector that is embracing technology at breakneck speed.
Bloomberg, the global news publisher, revealed last year that a third of their content uses some form of automated technology. They use a system called Cyborg - so far, so ‘sci-fi’ - to help churn out thousands of articles on company earnings each quarter. But when we look closer, this isn’t just replacing reporters. Business journalists find trawling through the details of a financial report boring and time consuming. But Cyborg can dissect a financial report right away, and instantly create a news story made up of the most important facts and figures. Far from replacing reporters, using technology to do the time-consuming grunt work could actually help journalists spend more time on work that needs their skills of judgement and creative flair. Instead of scrutinising financial documents, they can spend their time and energy telling the wider story.
When you take away human beings entirely, cracks appear in the technology, as Microsoft recently discovered. In May, Microsoft announced that they were sacking the editorial staff who maintained the news homepages on MSN, with the excuse that their jobs could now be carried out by AI. Only a week later, the artificial intelligence software illustrated a news story about racism with a photo of the wrong mixed-race member of the band Little Mix. Embarrassing, and frankly offensive. It’s a stark warning that we shouldn’t rush to ditch human beings from the newsroom.
We can see the same story - that technology works best when it assists and augments human activity - across other industries, like medicine. With the right technology, overburdened clinicians could be freed up to spend more of their time with patients, and less time trawling through repetitive tasks.
An exciting example of this was revealed in January. Google Health announced that their scientists had developed an artificial intelligence programme that could spot breast cancer in mammograms. The technology outperformed the specialists, because it missed fewer cases and generated fewer false positives. Google Health’s UK leader, Dominic King, explained that this could ease the burden on health services, without replacing experts. He said, “This is a great demonstration of how these technologies can enable and augment the human expert. The AI system is saying ‘I think there may be an issue here, do you want to check?’”
Technology may learn to spot the patterns and flag when there’s an issue. But what about communicating to the patient? Ultimately, when it comes to explaining the results and discussing next steps, a worried patient most likely wants to speak to a human being.
What about the rest of us?
In an ordinary office job, where we aren’t working to save lives, it’s true that roles made up of entirely routine tasks could be in danger. But do these roles really exist on a large scale anymore? We have already automated so many routine tasks in the workplace. Is an admin assistant really just being paid for routine tasks, or is it their communication skills, or team work, or contribution to the company culture that makes them valuable?
Today, workers are valued for effective interactions like communicating, problem-solving in teams, or using their judgement to understand what customers and users value most. Countless studies have found that people prefer interacting with human beings, especially in customer service settings. The COVID-19 crisis hasn’t changed this. When you’re working from home or quarantining, do you really want to interact with a bot? Apparently not. A recent report which looked into UK and US customer behaviour, showed that during the crisis, customers relied more than ever on human interactions. 39% of customers in the UK said that being able to speak to a live agent is a “make-or-break” factor to having a successful customer service interaction. More than 25% of respondents were disappointed by a brand not having a human-to-human option available.
Celebrating what’s human in a world of technology
The rise of automation is going to cause a shift in the workplace, including the jobs we do and the skills we prize. While some repetitive tasks are ripe for automation, human skills like creativity, entrepreneurial instinct, teamwork and emotional intelligence, are much harder for machines to master. In its 2018 Future of Jobs report, the World Economic Forum predicts that ‘human’ skills such as creativity, originality, persuasion, and negotiation will increase in value, while narrower technical skills will be less important.
As businesses rush to embrace AI and automation, they need to make sure they do this in a way that enhances the experience of workers, and maintains customer loyalty and satisfaction. We need to make technology work for us - not the other way around.
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