automatic: for the people?

6th November 2014
by Chloe Coulson

As technology gets smarter at unprecedented rates, businesses are starting to employ an automated labour force, so what role will the future human play in the world of work?

The industrial revolution took the grunt out of work with steam-powered machines replacing muscle, now advanced automation is threatening to remove the human cog from cognitive tasks. This is what MIT professors, Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson identify as the Second Machine Age, and warn this time it's not just the traditional manual workers at risk, but the swathes of white collar and service workers too.

The unstoppable speed of technological innovation has seen dreams such as driverless vehicles (thought impossible just a decade ago) already realised. Google's self-driving car leads the way having already traversed the streets of San Francisco, Mercedes unveiled an autonomous truck planned to be road worthy within a decade and last week Transport for London revealed its designs for driverless trains due to run on part of the network by the mid 2020s.

What does this mean for cabbies, truckers and train drivers? Technology, the golden enabler, which has allowed services like Uber to flourish and eat the lunch of traditional taxis, is now threatening to cut out the middle man altogether. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has already hinted towards his aspirations for a driverless future fleet.

Kiva Systems create intelligent robotic 'employees' capable of navigating, tracking and picking stock in the complex and ever changing environment of a warehouse - a job thought, until recently, too complex for a robot's capabilities. The possibility of an army of automated workers appealed to Amazon who now own Kiva Systems and their CEO Jeff Bezos has hopes to scale his automaton workforce from 1,000 to 10,000 by the end of the year.

It's not just manual skills that technology is excelling in. As scanning and imaging technology improves, even highly qualified workers from legal aids to lab technicians may lose out to the speed-reading and microscopic viewing capabilities of computers. IBM's cognitive supercomputer Watson has already beaten human participants on American quiz show Jeopardy (all from learnt knowledge, no googling) and is now swotting his way through all digitised medical knowledge in an attempt to be able to diagnose patients as well, if not better, than a human doctor.

Whilst machines offer a glimmer of hope in freeing us from the drudgery and grind of repetitive tasks, our careers help to give us a sense of purpose and productivity. Will we see a wave of nuLuddites rise up to avenge on tech's achilles heel; pouring coffee into self serve checkouts, jamming photocopiers with paperclips, terrorising electronics with bouts of waterboarding? History will tell us this is perhaps not the most pragmatic response and that ultimately, the bots can't be stopped. If humans want to prosper in future work, they will have to do what they've so far done best: adapt. 

The notion of a job for life has long been eroded and we will have to expect and accept a higher instance of career crossroads and periods of retraining throughout our ever-extending lifespans. We will also have to hone the skills that give us our competitive advantage such as creativity, originality, craftsmanship and emotional intelligence. Our abilities to express empathy, make creative leaps and connections, experiment with ideas or look at a problem from a new perspective are still (for now) very human attributes.

Offering a humane glimmer of hope, Toyota has begun to replace some of the robots in their Japanese factories with people after several expensive product recalls. Sometimes the application of know-how, experience and craft of the human hand and mind cannot be surpassed in the manufacture of more delicate components.

However, workers must never rest too comfortably on their Aerons. The onset of an ever-smarter army of automatons has tempting economic advantages. Businesses, governments and of course the working masses must carefully consider whether the economic gains outweigh the moral and social implications.