If you were to go by the opinions of veterans and experts across economic sectors today, as much as 40% of present day jobs could be taken over by automated bots and artificial intelligence in the near future. The impact of automation would be particularly felt in developing countries, where estimates saying as much as 69% of the workforce could be laid off if automation continues apace.
Does that make automation the villain?
Does it concentrate wealth and power in the hands of a few, while the masses are left in the lurch?
What does this mean for businesses, and jobseekers?
A look at past precedents will make it amply clear what automation means for us, into the future. Here’s a list of some popular misconceptions about automation.
Debunking Automation Myths
#1 – Automation Destroys Jobs
While the industrial revolution was underway, groups of peasants revolted. As their skills were no longer in demand, these bands, called Luddites, set about destroying machinery. The ideologues believed machines and automation were an existential threat to humanity and that people must go back to their old way of life.
What happened? They seem to have been way off the mark in their grievances. In hindsight, history has proved them conclusively wrong. The world population has increased manifold, and there’s far more employment now than ever. Living standards have only improved tremendously as a result of automation.
Automation does not destroy jobs, at least not in the long run. What automation does though, is shift demand from certain kinds of jobs to others.
- As machines and intelligent bots take over tasks that are menial, repetitive and just too boring, people can move on to more complex and intellectually stimulating jobs.
- Further, as bots become more intelligent and take over tasks thought to be the forte of humans, people can move on to tasks which require uniquely human qualities – such as the ability to think abstractly, conceptualise, work in a team, communicate, form interpersonal relationships, empathise etc.
- Factories took away manual labour? They also invented new jobs to man factory equipment and assembly lines! Artificial intelligence may take over basic coding and developer roles? It will surely also necessitate new roles to design such intelligent systems in the first place!
It looks all good in the long term. But, will short term pain outweigh long term benefits? Just as the roles of people have evolved from time to time, from the primitive hunter-gatherer to the present day worker with specialised skills in some niches, people will learn and equip themselves with skills to confront and overcome challenging changes.
What we must do is facilitate the process of learning rather than oppose development. A person may be educated on how to design intelligent machines, operate them or even work with them to maximise productivity.
In fact, people have now come to realise and have accepted that they have to keep learning and acquire new skills to enhance their value in a rapidly changing world. Governments worldwide will have to focus on retraining the workforce or will be forced to.
#2 – Automation Makes People Poorer
Not quite! Since the industrial revolution, the living standards of the masses have risen consistently. For instance, an average individual today enjoys more luxuries than the richest person from a century ago. Automation, in most cases, increases productivity. In an economy, goods are produced solely for human consumption.
(The Model T Assembly Line)
As companies and businesses profit from the benefits of automation, the value pie is shared with employees. Remember how Henry Ford doubled factory wages with the assembly line production of the Model T? The size of the economy grows with increasing productivity, and production, goods and services become more and more affordable.
- The industrial revolution of the 17th century brought about a tectonic shift in the lives of people. The growth in productivity, caused by automation of production processes brought about a sea change in living standards.
- Businesses produced far more, employees earned far more, and therefore people could afford much more with the same amount of money.
#3 – Automation Increases Wealth And Income Disparity
Despite what you might hear from many people, this is simply false.
- History bears evidence that automation has resulted in greater good for consumers than innovators. For example, retail giant Walmart enriched its founders by $100 billion, while saving $7.8 trillion for consumers over a span of thirty years.
- Further, automation mostly takes away low value jobs that pay less. People can move on to higher value jobs that pay more (like those on iimjobs.com) and also require less work. For example, an industrial worker can work in the hospitality industry and can earn from creating experiences instead of producing goods.
Even in the most extreme of scenarios where bots take over the whole world, almost eliminating human involvement in the economy, a universal basic income may be instituted as goods and services become abundant, to placate the unemployed. This might very well be the case in a futuristic society.
By bringing down prices with increased production at lower costs, automation upgrades lifestyles. The result is a happier, more motivated workforce, and good times for corporations. A free market would rein in corporations from making runaway profits, as increased competition forces profit margins down.
#4 – Automation concentrates power towards businesses and top management
Some express fears that automation would concentrate too much influence , and by extension, wealth in the hands of a few – corporations and managers both. Again, this is very unlikely in a free society where automation benefits the masses.
Businesses will face new challenges with automation, and important questions will need to be answered:
- Where will talent be sourced from for new roles?
- What will these new roles look like?
- How will the workforce be retrained for these new challenges?
In such a scenario, it would be naive of jobseekers to expect that they’re being marginalised.
#5 – Automation Kills Industries
- The internet killed yellow pages, it killed paper maps and navigation devices.
- Internet banking has eaten into traditional banking’s share.
- Modern healthcare is being transformed radically, with apps diagnosing a lot of our symptoms in the developed world.
But this isn’t the full picture. Just like jobs, automation creates new industries as well.
- Look at Uber. Look at Amazon. The P2P transportation industry, and the ecommerce industry exist today solely because of the automation changes the internet brought.
- Literally every other industry has been transformed beyond recognition by automation and productivity gains.
In the past thirty years alone, technological progress has uplifted more than a billion people from poverty and has enhanced the purchasing powers of more than 80% of people worldwide.
We’re on the cusp of an unprecedented technological revolution, with massive advancements in machine learning and artificial intelligence. At this juncture, it is only natural that people are apprehensive of automation and what it means for them.
But it’s important to understand that automation does not necessarily equate to loss of jobs. New industries rise, new roles are created. As has been borne out by historical precedents, automation is not a bane, but a boon for our economy, and frankly, mankind.
Businesses will evolve, jobs will evolve, and so will our world.