Preparing for the Age of Automation

Updated: Feb 11, 2020

We’ve all been there. Walking into a McDonalds, supermarket and realising that the employees and cashiers, aren’t.

Many will agree that at first the automatic cashiers at supermarkets, or self-ordering panels at McDonald’s, are complicated to use. However, they’re mechanics become more familiar and with time we find ourselves to be grateful. Grateful because we don’t have to re-explain the order/interact with some “hopeless” employee or cashier. The concept sounds great from a consumer’s point of view. The process of ordering and checking out becomes way more efficient and less socially boring.

But is it?

It is becoming more and more common to find less and less of these workers at our supermarkets and fast food chains, with the exception of some. Sure, we may be a long way from a totally automated workforce in our local supermarkets etc. However, with the technological advancements of recent years, the Age of Automation could very well arrive sooner than current estimates.

From the consumer’s point of view, this situation seems redundant to their needs. A consumer just cares about buying their food, groceries, clothes and other items of apparent value. The consumer hardly wants to converse with some stranger between a counter. Unless of course they feel the need to ask for their receipt or are overly social (the latter arguably a rarer scenario than the former). From an employee’s point of view, however, being replaced by a machine probably doesn’t feel like a convenience.

As part of my coursework for my Higher Level Theatre course during my International Baccalaureate study, I had to perform a “Solo Piece”. It essentially was a one-man/woman performance based on the theatrical theory of a theatre theorist with the performance being entirely original. I chose Bertolt Brecht as my theorist and his alienation effect as my theory. Through a lengthy research process of Brecht’s theory and life story, I ultimately decided on the story I should perform. The story portrayed the automation effect:

  1. how an employee is fired by a corporate boss 

  2. due to the company he works for moving towards

  3. replacing human manufacturers with machines.

What is striking from the story of my performance is that it is the reality for many employees today and, according to the BBC, eventually the reality for many more. So today I would like to focus on the issue of automation in factories by answering the following three key questions:

  1. What is automation?

  2. What about it?

  3. What can we do about it?

My objective today is simply to spread awareness and perhaps offer a way forward for challenging this problem through positive, yet realistic,  methods.

Well? What is automation?

Automation has been existing for almost more than two centuries. The Oxford Dictionary defines automation as “The use or introduction of automatic equipment in a manufacturing or other process or facility.” Simply put, the use of machines to complete tasks which would otherwise be completed in full by a person. The justification for it makes sense, from a business point of view.

IT software company HelpSystems argues that cost reduction, productivity, reliability and performance are just some of the benefits provided by automation. Cost reduction does significantly reduced considering how employees, who get paid, are replaced by machines who won’t. In addition, productivity certainly increases when with automated operations become more dominant in a workspace due to their 24/7 work ability. In contrast humans require breaks, rest time, holidays, aspects of life machines don’t require. This reflects a clear reliability in their continuous performance which is of course inhuman.

HelpSystems does argue that the productivity and reliability, and albeit the cost reduction aspect, of automation is dependant on the investment a company will make. This refers to the relevant upgrades in “hardware or purchase [of] a newer system” any company seeking automation would need to maintain, although “both [are] expensive choices”.

Historians offer differing opinions on the origins of automation yet most agree it existed prior the 19th century. Howard B. Jacobson and colleague Joseph S. Roueek note in their book Automation and Society how inventor, and engineer, Oliver Evans successfully created the first completely automated machine, the flour mill in 1785. It is around this time that the mass automation period occurred vis a vis the Industrial Revolution.

The Industrial Revolution of course triggered a  dramatic socio-economic shift with many workers leaving rural areas and their agricultural jobs to urban areas for manufacturing jobs.This emphatic eruption of factory mechanisation, and replacement of human labour by automation has certainly continued. The issue now however is assessing the role technology has on automation. 

What’s the big deal?

Advancements in technology the last few decades have allowed for a significant development in robotics, which in turn has outpaced the job productivity of human labour. Technological progress is continuously growing with companies relying more and more on products being built now solely by machines. A dramatic example of this phenomenon comes in a particular region in Dongguan, China where the Changying Precision Technology Company (CPTC) has issued a 90% overhaul of its workforce.

“The factory used to be run by 650 employees, but now just 60 people get the entire job done, while robots take care of the rest. Luo Weiqiang, the general manager, says the number of required employees will drop to 20 at one point.”

Weiqiang justifies this dramatic shift from traditional manufacturing, (using humans workers) to manufacturing driven by automation, by the results CPTC’s strategy has produced. According to the company the overhaul has allowed for a staggering 250% increase in production of necessary equipment and as an article puts it “ensur[es] better quality”. This of course is due to the reasons for automation implementation that I outlined previously.

Although CPTC’s dramatic overhaul may seem an exception there is no denying the severe social impact increasing automation in factories is having. Just last year the Pew Research Center noted that 72% of Americans, the second largest manufacturing country in the world, are greatly concerned over the emerging automation and its effect on their employment status. Their concern is certainly understandable.

The BBC recently wrote an article entitled “Robot automation will ‘take 800 million jobs by 2030’”, its findings were indeed quite startling. The article pertains to a report from the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) citing “how 46 countries and 800 occupations by the McKinsey Global Institute found that up to one-fifth of the global workforce will be affected”. In addition, the report details G20 countries, such as the US and Germany, will see a third of their workforce jobless and in need of job retraining due to automation.

The jobs that are deemed high risk to automation, according to the MGI, are Machine Operators and food workers. From their findings, MGI were clear on their overall message to governments; plans to retrain employees, at risk of losing out to automation, must become a priority. This message seems even more pertinent for the US as “39 to 73 million jobs may be eliminated by 2030”.

All this information further indicates to the growing risk of job loss around the world as  a result of the Age of Automation. At this rate its meteoric growth is worrying, and shortens the window of opportunity for society to find a meaningful solution.

What now?

Now on a pessimistic issue such as this it is important to always find a positive of which there are a few. Firstly, the MGI report cited by the BBC’s article did not solely focus on discussing the link between rising automation and job loss. For instance it stated how developing countries, or countries not yet investing in automation, are at a significantly lesser risk of seeing great job loss to automation. In addition they offer hope for future job seekers.

The benefits of artificial intelligence and automation to users and businesses, and the economic growth that could come via their productivity contributions, are compelling. They will not only contribute to dynamic economies that create jobs but also help create the economic surpluses that will enable societies to address the workforce transitions that will likely happen regardless.

Now, although this information offers some respite to a seemingly unstoppable issue, I believe a more direct solution is needed. This solution, or perhaps solutions, need to be driven by a paradigm shift so as to assist millions of employees around the world from losing their livelihoods to automation.

A paradigm shift for me means a dramatic shift in common assumptions of a perceived topic, in this case the meaning of work. I can not delve into the philosophical and practical meaning of work as that in itself would require a series of blogs. I do not think these are necessary for what I am trying to state here. We need to ask ourselves whether the definition of work today, a regular activity performed ideally for the benefit of society in exchange for payment, is properly being implemented.

A few weeks ago I received a fantastic video from my former IB Theatre teacher discussing this very issue. In it the Chinese billionaire Jack Ma advocates for a societal change in education so as to avoid this pointless conflict between humans and machines. He emphasises a central theme that robots should not replace us, but work for us.

In order for this to work, Ma argues that our education must allow for more autonomy, creativity, and collaboration among students. Ma indicates how our current education system was formed during the Industrial Revolution, with its main goal to prepare students to work in factories. This leads to a rigid and strict classroom environment where creativity and independence is frowned upon. An alternative to the current education system must start to occur so as to introduce new skills that will allow students, and future generations, to obtain jobs that will have less risk of automation.

This solution, of course, cannot happen overnight. Education and the role work plays in our society are two issues that need to be addressed. This change will not occur without a universal understanding, and agreement, between experts and members of the general public. What is evident is that the Age of Automation will arrive. When it does we must be prepared

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