The Impact of Automation on the Future of Work And Beyond

Oct 6, 2020
6 min read

The Great Acceleration

We are witnessing a significant transformation in the way societies, countries, institutions, and economies function with the onset of the fourth industrial revolution. The rise of technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), natural language processing (NLP), and others that make up the foundation of the fourth industrial revolution is leading to the increasing adoption of automation and changing the way we function as a society. They are significantly altering the way we work and giving rise to a paradigm shift in the manner societies are organized in tandem with other forces influencing the human culture and consciousness, shaping up new frontiers of the human evolution.

The onset of the fourth industrial revolution suddenly came into the limelight as the entire world, currently in the grip of an ongoing pandemic, realized the global economic order's fragility and the drawbacks of globalization. A system that emphasizes maximizing the productivity and profitability rather than creating a bare-minimum buffer manufacturing capacity for any perceived emergency was considered an inefficient and unprofitable approach. This system faces severe criticism as advanced and rich economies face crippling shortages of things like ventilators and PPEs to fight the infection spread. Countries and politicians are now advocating a renewed emphasis on self-reliance and a significantly different economic order to ensure the availability and smooth supply of essential goods and services needed.

People now realize the follies of an economic system that encourages unlimited consumption of resources. It is worth exploring how technologies related to automation are shaping up the future of our planet, what impact the rise of automation will have on the way we work and how our planet will cope with the ill-effects of what has been termed 'the great acceleration.' With its origins in the mid-twentieth century, the great acceleration has altered our planet's ecosystems at a blinding pace. It has led to an extinction-level decline of the natural world. In this write-up, let us delve into the impact of automation on the future of work.

Impact of Automation On The Way We Work

Looking at the history of the three industrial revolutions, it can be safely inferred that these transformations, even though creating temporary unemployment, led to the opening up of new areas of work and had a net positive impact on the number of jobs created. However, what sets apart the current fourth industrial revolution is the sheer scale of its impact and its potential to usher in very high levels of prosperity and human welfare. Machines are replacing humans in dangerous and labor-intensive jobs, which benefits society and gives rise to a more just and equitable system.

So, in the coming decades, automation will lead to autonomous vehicles becoming predominant, eliminating the need to drive. Consequently, jobs of truck-drivers, taxi-drivers, and the like are likely to become obsolete. On similar lines, robots are likely to take increasingly complex roles in sectors like defense (replacing human soldiers and saving the loss of life and limb) and agriculture (like taking up farming in barren soil conditions and further increasing the food production).

Such automation levels can be seen in our quest for ever-increasing productivity levels, which have stagnated and consequently stagnated the incomes of blue and white-collar workers in developed economies and gave rise to deeper economic inequalities a highly skewed distribution of wealth. From the perspective of the developing world, automation is perceived as a huge challenge. It gives rise to many unemployed youths, with major consequences on social stability and acting as a catalyst to upheavals and unrest in labor-intensive economies. On the other hand, automation and its large scale adoption leads to the emergence of new dilemmas and the need for a new ethical and moral code of conduct. For example, consider what may happen if any person is killed wrongfully by an autonomous law-enforcement robot, what kind of punishment can be meted out to such an entity, and will the people who have suffered will get a sense of justice merely by 'switching off' the erring machine? These are the new ethical and moral questions that we will be dealing with in the coming times.

Reskilling And Upskilling For The Jobs That Don't Exist Presently

As machines increasingly replace humans, it also gives rise to digitization, with systems like routine data-collection tasks, monitoring and tracking various parameters like air pollution levels and water contamination, or incident reporting and documentation. The impact of these changes will give rise to productive and efficient workflows and business processes, with humans having more time for tasks requiring fine thinking, collaboration, and creativity. Automation will also create new jobs, requiring people who can manage the system and processes required to develop and maintain such kind of automated workforce consisting of robots. Refinement of technologies like AI and ML leads to the rise of computers with capabilities to mimic human learning and decision-making patterns and automate jobs like surveying, accounting, office support, and the like.

Simultaneously, automation is creating jobs that currently don't exist, and we cannot even imagine the kind of scope and skill-sets required for them. For example, when I was studying engineering in college, I never imagined that I would be working as a web content writer, indulging in content marketing and digital marketing. These terms didnt even exist at that time.

We have an inkling of the things to come, the contours of the new economic order and the jobs it will create are slowly emerging. The future jobs, rather than emphasizing hardcore technical skills, will value skills concentrating on emotional intelligence, creativity, problem-solving, fostering collaboration, and value-creation. Partial automation of jobs in healthcare and warehousing is an indication of things to come. AI and ML are evolving to read x-ray scans of patients, transforming healthcare and robots performing surgeries and telemedicine, allowing human doctors to perform remote surgeries. Similarly, robots are already replacing humans in warehouses, with companies like Amazon deploying robots to stack goods and transport them speedily.

So it is clear that to stay relevant in the work sphere, a major overhaul needs to be done in our education sector. We need to prepare a workforce that can adapt to the rapid technological advances and can work and interact with machines and robots. We all need to undergo major reskilling and upskilling in how we handle the coming times to be dominated by an IoT based world, where everything is interconnected.

Wide-Scale Transformation of Our Cities

We should also consider the impact of this major shift towards automation and AI on the type of jobs we will do and the related evolution of the workplace and the consequent shaping up of our cities and the related environment and sustainability aspects. As the workforce becomes increasingly mobile and flexible due to the nature of jobs changing, it will also dramatically change the concept of workspaces as it exists presently. Tomorrow's office may be completely different, facilitating collaboration and interaction between people and serving as incubators of innovation and developing relationships.

This impact can already be felt with the sudden spurt in the work from home trend. This has resulted in vast and expensive office buildings lying vacant, businesses relying on the office workers going bust, and transportation networks operating way below their intended capacity, as less people commute to offices. Such a shift to a more flexible and mobile work culture will significantly alter our cities' shape and design. The business district in cities will become outdated, as there would be no need for a large number of people to commute to a centralized location in the city.

The Thinking Machines

The impact of automation and sophisticated AI-based machines doesn't stop here. I was astonished to learn about the next-gen AI, which has led to the development of the Generative Pre-trained Transformer 3 (GPT -3) language model, developed by OpenAI research institute. This powerful and sophisticated language model can generate human-like text, ranging from commercial business writing to creative writing. Apart from performing routine and mundane tasks like business correspondences, the GPT-3 language model can also write poetry and perform technical tasks like coding. Based on billions of parameters, the development of this latest AI-based language model is astonishing and profound at the same time. I wonder what sort of consciousness the machine will possess, if any, and if it can feel the emotions capable of framing in words. The job of content writers, novelists, painters (remember the auction of the AI created portrait in 2018) are also on the line at par with drivers, accountants, and telecallers. Not to mention the impact of this technology on the menace of fake news, complicating matters further, as people would not be able to make out what is fake and propaganda dished out by vested interests from genuine and fact-based news is increasingly getting sidelined.

Final Words

The writing on the wall is clear. Automation and AI-based technologies are here to stay. They are already shaping the future with a completely transformed work culture, leading to large-scale disruptions in employment patterns and the economic order. The world is at a crossroad. One way is leading to a 'black mirror' type of social credit system already being implemented in China. The State applies a suffocating and highly oppressive control system over its citizens' lives, with every move and word of citizens being monitored continuously.

The other way leads to the creation of a world with equitable distribution of wealth and democratizing the tools and knowledge that would make our societies and people better educated and equipped for a bright and prosperous future. The choice is ours. By being aware of this profound shift taking place, we would be doing humanity a great service by making a conscious choice regarding how such technologies shape our world and culture, impacting not only us and our children but setting the stage for generations to come. What kind of world we leave for them depends on the choices that we make now, and it is better to make an informed choice for a world with unlimited possibilities.