Automation, artificial intelligence and the modern workplace
It’s no secret that automation and artificial intelligence (AI) are playing increasing roles in the modern economy and society.
Supermarkets are fast transforming from local corner store outlets to leaders in automated warehousing and distribution. Woolworths is investing $562 million in an automated warehouse in Dandenong, while Coles is partnering with British online supermarket group Ocado to bring its automated grocery platform to Australia.
Globally, Amazon has become synonymous with automated warehousing, with its Sparrows Point ‘Fulfilment Centre’ in Baltimore and ‘vision for the future’ video, featuring delivery drones being released en masse from the underbelly of a mothership blimp.
Another area in which automation is having a profound impact is surgery, where robots have been used by surgeons for the past decade (albeit still controlled by human hands). The medical community has embraced not only the technology involved but also the positive clinical outcomes from the precision and repetitive functionality of the equipment.
AI is also playing a growing role in our everyday lives. Briefly defined, AI is an area of computer science that emphasises the creation of intelligent machines which work and react like humans. It has applications in speech recognition, learning, planning and problem solving.
When Knight Rider first aired on television in 1982, featuring David Hasselhoff driving an artificially intelligent Pontiac Trans Am named KITT, the notion of dialogue with a car was incomprehensible; total science fiction. But in February this year, Mercedes debuted its new A-Class vehicle, promoting a ‘vehicle that listens’. Tesla aims to progress its autonomous systems to the point that, by the middle of 2020, drivers will no longer have to pay attention to the road, while assistant devices such as Amazon Alexa, Microsoft Cortana and Google Assistant are now being used in our homes, watches, TVs and cars.
Automation and AI are not new concepts. Perhaps the earliest and most enduring example of automation was the replacement of automotive industry workers with robots. Vehicles have become more reliable with higher consistency and build quality, and are also more affordable. Commercial pilots, meanwhile, are able to get more rest on long-haul flights because of the effectiveness of autopilot.
But the rapidly accelerating growth of automation and AI has focused attention on the paradox of convenience versus employment. Perth Young Professionals recently held a ‘The Future of Work: Automation and AI’ event, featuring panellists:
- Prasad Arav from HBF Health;
- Camilla Kraj-Krajewski from Lawyers on Demand;
- Peter Damen from Level 5 Design, and;
- Michelle Sandford from Microsoft.
The diversity in backgrounds and industries of the panellists provided valuable discussion points and insights into the predicted outcomes of greater automation and AI in our lives and work places.
Transforming the way we work
The panellists were united in the view that workplaces were quickly transforming due to the increasing role of automation and AI. Integrated software systems and administration platforms, along with the convergence of sales and customer relationship management data and KPI tracking, make it possible to automate the production of work performance dashboards that benefit both employees and employers. Time that was once spent reporting on sales information and providing progress updates can now be spent achieving objectives, in the office and remotely. Additional integration with emailing platforms means that richly-designed, highly-personalised communications with clients can be easily scheduled and sent, with automatic follow-up emails and appointment scheduling to accompany them. More sophisticated digital ecosystems are enabling smarter working.
Potential issues in the next 15 years
An inevitable concern raised during the panel discussion was the role of human involvement, both in current job roles and entry into the workforce. Rapid growth in automation and AI means new entrants into the workforce or newcomers to a company must quickly learn the intricate and sophisticated systems in place within an organisation. People working within an organisation must also be flexible enough and have the learning capacity to adapt to the growing role of automation and AI, despite potentially having been hired before the technology became so prominent. A salient example would be a photographer’s assistant now being required to configure and initialise small automated drones during film and video shoots, in addition to the traditional roles of camera and lighting operation and sound preparation.
Jobs at risk?
Jobs perceived to be most at risk of replacement by automation and AI include those where there is a strong demand for technological innovation and roles involving simple, predictable, and repetitive tasks. Jobs where there is a strong demand for technological intervention include those that are, as Michelle Sandford described them, “dull, dirty, and dangerous”. Many treacherous mining roles have been replaced by robotics, while bomb detection, disarming and disposal are other activities that are carried out remotely. Process-driven roles like administrative bookkeeping exemplify the kind of repetitive processing job perceived to be at risk. Conversely, jobs involving a high degree of dynamic, creative, ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking are perceived to be among the safest.
Skills to acquire to remain relevant
It is important for workplaces to be flexible in order to embrace the growing role of automation and AI. Technologies are likely to disrupt the ways goals and objectives were previously (or traditionally) achieved in business, requiring a strong desire among all staff to adapt to new changes and methodologies. Using Cannings Purple as an example, the appointment in 2018 of Ruth Callaghan as Chief Innovation Officer was an investment in learning, understanding, adopting and adapting to the technological changes relevant to digital marketing and public relations. Looking elsewhere, car mechanics need to understand an ever-changing raft of automotive technologies, from increasingly sophisticated on-board diagnostic systems to the fast-approaching takeover of hybrid and electric vehicles. Similarly, modern bike shops and repairers are now faced with the growing popularity of electric bikes.
According to the panel, a prevailing point of view and misconception is that automation and AI will replace the role of human beings. The introduction of computers into traditionally human-based roles eliminates human complexities and ‘human error’. But even though aerial drones have demonstrated the concept of pilotless aircraft, convincing millions of air travellers each year to place their faith in plane without a pilot may be a step too far.
In closing, the commercial world is facing strong economic challenges with multiple factors at play. Many institutions are finding themselves in uncharted territory, with increased surveillance, accountability and probity required by beefed-up regulators. This creates a paradox: increased precision and lower likelihood of errors through the use of automation and AI, versus the need for human oversight and intervention (the very same reason that a surgeon is still needed to control a robot).
American author Ray Bradbury warned of the dangers associated with over-reliance on automation and AI in the dystopian short story, ‘The Pedestrian’, published in 1951. However, these themes are perhaps best summed up by Capt. Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger, who famously landed a US Airways flight on the Hudson River in 2009 and wrote the following in a 2015 LinkedIn article titled, Technology cannot replace pilots:
“The bottom line is this: Systems that integrate the best of human abilities and technology are the safest for all concerned. So when we design our systems, we need to assign appropriate roles to the human and technological components. It is best for humans to be the doers and technology to be the monitors, providing decision aids and safeguards.”
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