Automation only tells half of the story

July 2020

The future of artificial intelligence is the augmentation of human endeavours. 

 

When people try to wrap their heads around artificial intelligence, the word that often gets people’s attention is automation.

It’s not just the pointier end of the subject, it’s also the most disruptive. $2.2 trillion is expected to be generated in the Australian economy by automation, but 27 per cent of current jobs in Mackay are estimated to be under threat.

This dilemma is one of the areas this platform aims to address. Learning new skills will help us prepare for the future of work, but understanding exactly how we will interact with automation will help us make more informed decisions about our careers.

Researchers from the Singapore Management University found that artificial intelligence isn’t automating the workforce as much as it’s being augmented -- meaning the tasks needed to perform jobs are changing more than they’re being replaced. 

We now know from one of our earlier investigations that the fourth industrial revolution isn’t just about automation, it’s about people and technologies occupying different but complementary roles, blurring the lines between cyber and physical systems.  

David Autor, an economist at MIT recently pointed to the fact that journalists and experts overstate the extent of machine substitution for human labour. This doesn’t reduce the genuine fears around job displacement, but it does show the consensus among experts that tasks which cannot be substituted by computers are generally complemented by them.

So, at what point is a job replaced, supported or even enhanced by technology? If we look back at our own careers, how many jobs have been automated and how many have been augmented?

Let’s first look at some examples of automation. Data entry is a job that’s simple to automate because the tasks are repetitive and focus largely on electronic information. 

Zapier lets you do this for free and without any programming skills. If someone registers for an event, you can automatically add them to a guest list, send a confirmation email, upload the invoice to a spreadsheet and add their details to a mailing list.

You might then be thinking data entry is well and truly automated, but there are still data entry jobs being advertised online. It’s because although we may be able to automate some of the repetitive tasks, more complex skills like document management, communication and problem solving can’t be automated. 

Let’s look at an example of augmentation. When we search information on Google, algorithms are deployed to help us find the information we need, improving our ability to make quick and informed decisions.

Search engines save people an enormous amount of time on information discovery. On the displacement side of the equation, libraries and media companies may have struggled with lower demand, but were able to reinvent themselves as community hubs and trusted sources of information. 

Realistically, automation just doesn’t tell the full story. A report by global consulting firm McKinsey and Company found only 29 per cent of automation will involve people changing their jobs, leaving the rest of Australia, particularly skilled workers, with the task of adapting to automation.

The $2.2 trillion question is how can we accelerate the rate of automation in the workplace while giving workers the training they need? The answer will be found on the augment side of the equation. 

 

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