Automation, the Co-Worker of the Future

January 25, 2023

Automation is much more than just robots in a factory. Automation is changing our office life too. By definition, automation is simply a technology created to monitor and control the production and delivery of products and services. In worldwide use since the 1980s, the Automatic Teller Machine (ATM) is an example of automation we take for granted and has all but rendered obsolete the role of bank tellers. Like ATMs, automation allows for repetitive tasks to be handled faster, more efficiently and at a lower cost than employing people to do the same job. Just as most industries rely on automation for production, we’re seeing the rise of automation in services and functions that are more complex and require multifaceted interactions with employees and the public. With the expanded role of automation as a service and professional asset, how will employees interact with automated “co-workers,” and will they become just as engrained in our daily lives as the ATM has for almost half a century?

For most businesses, automation certainly offers a wide variety of benefits. In many areas, machines can prove superior to people performing the same tasks. A machine works faster and doesn’t need breaks or days off. They allow for increased output in less time while increasing quality. Automation also nearly eliminates error while at the same time improving safeguards for employees and customers. Pandemic-driven necessity for safety has pushed the development process considerably. Hospitals, perhaps more than any other industry, saw this benefit as they deployed artificial intelligence (AI) robots to clean medical and treatment facilities during the pandemic. These robots quickly became valuable team members during a time of high stress, low morale, and staffing difficulties.  

In today’s short-staffed world, consumers are benefiting more and more from increased automation, as well.  These smart technologies allow employees to off-load higher-order responsibilities in addition to the more basic, recurring tasks.

Just as customer service automation allows us to quickly and easily find the answers to frequently asked questions, the status of an order, a bank balance, or even refilling a prescription, AI is allowing for more advanced applications. Some companies are using deepfake technology to create employee communications from executives who may not be available for filming or to provide messaging in multiple languages. So how will automation change workplace dynamics in the future? For many, the initial reaction to this type of technology and automation is a concern that they will take away jobs. Of course, some positions would likely never be completely replaced like therapists, childcare workers, or classroom teachers. Any position where human interaction is a key element of its success would be difficult to be replicated by machines, even with today’s advanced AI.

Today, about half of the hours worked in manufacturing are spent performing manual labor. In the year 2030 that number will have decreased. Adding automation does not always mean jobs will be cut. Think about how many jobs today were available in the 1920s or the 1970s even? About 63 of jobs performed in 2018 did not exist in 1940, according to a 2020 study done by MIT. That study also found that “technological change is simultaneously replacing existing work and creating new work. It is not eliminating work altogether.” While the ATM can replace a bank teller, it also creates positions to service, repair, and manufacture the machine itself.

The future of automation will require a collaboration of man and machine. Technology will one day allow both to pull the best qualities of the other on a project. The efficiency and accuracy of a machine coupled with the emotions and service-based ideas only humans can provide will build what could be the ultimate partnership. Take for example, building a house. The joint effort between man and machine could create a home that people will find charming with curb appeal along with the actual measurements 100% correct from the house’s framing to the size of the cabinetry in the laundry room. Machines can build houses to spec, and up until now, only people could add the emotional elements that make it a home.

As we improve the human-machine collaboration tech, the goal is to engage with AI-powered machines to process information more like their human coworkers and learn from past projects. Trying to teach a machine to be more human sounds like the stuff of sci-fi movies, but the technology is already being implemented. AI assisted solutions are already being used to forecast trends and for collecting and analyzing data. Some AIs are being programed to display deeper and even complex human traits. The startup Koko, from MIT Media Lab, has created machine learning that digs a little deeper into the user’s mood.  This technology is attempting to teach empathy to chatbots like Siri, Alexa, and Clara, allowing them to interpret the user’s mood and ultimately suggest how the user might channel that emotion positively or other appropriate feedback or advice to guide action.

As automation and AI bring the next evolution of workforce transformation, some employees will need to be retooled into different professions. However, historically, automation has created more jobs than it replaces.  Moving forward, we will see automation evolve into a more human like experience, leaving the robotic and forced interactions we expect today behind.

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