Brave New World?
The World Economic Forum, in its study on the future of work, warns of the impending loss of over five million jobs due to automation, robots and other technological advancements. The study, not surprisingly, gained traction in the media.
These kinds of predictions and fears are not new. In 2013, academics from Oxford University published a study stating that in the US alone, over 47% of jobs could be replaced by automation. And of course, there was the widely discussed warning about artificial intelligence by men such as Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk.
For years, even decades, there have been warnings about the impact technological advancements will have on the nature of human labour.
Automation has already arrived on the factory floor, where robots perform a variety of tasks that were previously done by humans. What is new now, is that more and more back office processes can be automated. It is now white collar workers that deal with automation.
Furthermore, technical developments such as self-driving cars, drones and even a hotel run by robots mean that automation is closer to the service sector, and our everyday lives, than ever before.
Grim Forecasts Did Not Come True In The Past
The truth is, we don't know what the future will look like. What we can do, however, is look at the past. And in the past, grim forecasts about the future of work never came to pass. Of course, with every technical advancement, jobs were lost and certain professions disappeared. But every time, new jobs were created as well. Overall, technology has created more jobs than it has destroyed and increased productivity and the quality of life at the same time.
The problem is that it's always easy to imagine the kinds of occupations or tasks that will disappear because they could be automated. It is much harder to imagine new professions that have not yet been created.
Jobs like app developers , big data analysts or robot handlers for example. They used to be unknown or, at best, niche occupations. Now they're everywhere. Or who would have thought that people would one day be able to earn money in esports?
Which is why the study of the World Economic Forum should be taken with a grain of salt. In the end, the results of the study are based on a survey filled out by HR Officers and senior management of multinational companies. And they're also just human.
Automation As an Opportunity
Automation does not have to have a negative impact and does not have to go hand in hand with the loss of jobs.
Because who doesn't have those little everyday routine tasks? The ones you have to do over and over again, without any change. You don't have to think. But you can't just drift off either because if you do, you could spend hours looking for that one typo. These kinds of tasks drain energy and leave you exhausted and frustrated.
They're tasks no one would mind giving over to robots.
In many areas, that's already possible and a huge relief for employees. For example, Robotic Process Automation can already do such mundane, rules-based tasks for humans.
When these boring tasks are automated, it means more time to focus on more interesting, fulfilling tasks.
The interaction between human work and automation will play an increasing role, with humans giving over certain tasks to the robot colleague and the robot colleague, in turn, then passing over to a human in order to complete a process.
Robots and humans do not have to be on opposite sides. Working together, each playing to their strengths, we can achieve much more than what was previously possible. Robots will take over routine tasks. But they're still far from replacing humans.