Unending Automation

By David Creelman

The trouble with trends is that the important ones play out over decades; they become “old news” even while they remain important in shaping our lives. Once such trend is automation and it has been playing out not just over a few decades but for more than a hundred years. Even so it is hardly old news and recent advances in a whole range of automation technologies mean it is time for HR to look at the topic again.

What’s happening with robots?
Ten years ago if we thought about automation replacing cashiers we would have envisioned humanoid robots. Instead we find cashiers are being replaced by self-service systems where the human shopper handles the item, a radio-frequency identification (RFID) tag tells the automated checkout what is being bought, electronic payment eliminates the need to handle cash, and security tags control theft. The final piece of the system is a human “backup cashier” to handle problems.

The reality of how automation is unfolding for cashiers is a good lesson in how the new world of automation works. It is about a whole suite of technologies not just smart robots, and it relies on humans to do some of the work.  Self-service automation will not eliminate all the cashiers—just most of them.  In developed economies about one per cent of jobs are cashiers. Remove half and we’ve created a noticeable 0.5 per cent jump in unemployment.  We will see similar, relatively low technology systems reduce the number of workers needed in many common jobs.

On a higher technology front, the robots we see in factories are becoming much more capable. They have better vision, can move faster and more gently, and it is easier for them to communicate. We also see self-driving cars that succeed thanks to better computing, better machine vision and better GPS. These cars will eliminate the jobs of many professional drivers.

It is not just blue collar work that will be slammed by automation. IBM’s Watson beat the very best humans in Jeopardy, a general intelligence game.  IBM is working on turning Watson’s talents to medical diagnosis. Perhaps after that Watson will master some elements of legal work. It is not that all doctors or lawyers will be replaced by machines. Maybe only ten per cent at first. That small percentage won’t be a comfort to the doctors and lawyers who have lost their jobs.

bcit-300x100Won’t everything work out ok?
Economists, almost as a matter of faith, feel it will all work out. They believe that the wise and benevolent invisible hand will find work for everyone. They have two historical experiences to draw on: the agricultural and industrial revolutions. These revolutions, while creating terrible disruptions, did not lead to long-term mass employment. This time, with the automation revolution, it might be the same or it might be different. We could argue either way. No one really knows. What we do know is that we should be prepared for the case where it doesn’t magically all work out.

What it means for HR
If automation does lead to persistent mass unemployment, that is more a problem for governments than HR leaders. However there are two issues that do fall into HR’s lap: workforce planning and protecting your current employees.

With workforce planning we might think that if we plan to double in size then we will need twice as many drivers, cashiers and so on. Add technological advances into the equation and the number of new workers needed may be much smaller. A more difficult task than estimating raw numbers is to think through how jobs will be different in an automated world. A growing restaurant chain may not need more waiters, but may need a few really good programmers and user interface experts.

Many countries do not require organizations to protect workers from technological change. If self-driving vehicles can replace your truckers then perhaps you can just send them a note wishing them luck finding another job. However, ethically we have a responsibility to at least inform workers about their longer-term prospects and preferably find ways to help. Ways to help could include early retirement, job-sharing, or retraining. HR should explore all those options.

The number of jobs for horses in the US fell from 26 million in 1915 to three million in 1960—a 90 per cent decline. Humans are a good deal more clever than horses so we can hope that we do not suffer the same depth of unemployment. Nonetheless it is time we take a renewed look at the incredible things happening in automation, robotics and artificial intelligence. Change is coming and we should be prepared.

David Creelman is CEO of Creelman Research, providing writing, research and speaking on human-capital management. He works with a variety of academics, think tanks, consultancies and HR vendors in Canada, the U.S., Japan, Europe and China. Mr. Creelman can be reached at dcreelman@creelmanresearch.com.

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