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The impact of automation on the future of work

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By Mark van Rijmenam, Author of The Organisation of Tomorrow and Step into the Metaverse

Automation has great potential for society and it is this promise that makes the future of work so incredibly exciting. In my opinion, automation is one of the three parts that will define the future of work alongside data and decentralization. All three combined have the potential to fundamentally change society and make work better, faster, more efficient – and more humane.

Deploying automated technology

While many organizations are focusing on the low hanging fruit, such as automating call centers or using robotic processing automation, the real potential that AI and machine learning will bring over the years is when organizations start experimenting with it in the way that the big tech firms are currently doing. 

In 10 years from now, we will be automating more complex, strategic tasks. Examples include self-driving cars and fully automated warehouses. We will start to see the results of connecting and automating different processes. We see the beginnings of this process already in the Tesla Gigafactory and the ‘dark factories’ of China. Currently, these fully automated systems are outliers, but we are moving in that direction.

What we can learn from the Gigafactory is that it took Tesla a very long time to achieve the level of automation that they have, but once a company has established an effective system, the benefits are enormous. Businesses can operate their factories more efficiently and effectively. At the start of the pandemic, a number of Chinese factories became dark factories which enabled them to continue to operate despite the lockdowns.

Working alongside robots

Automation will undoubtedly affect the future of how business is done. From a shareholder perspective, businesses will have to find a balance to ensure the benefits to the organization don’t solely end up in the hands of a small group of people. 

In an optimal scenario, automation can enable shorter work hours, fulfilling work and sufficient pay for ordinary workers to make a good living. For this to happen, the benefits of automation need to be shared with everyone in society.

Automation can make work more interesting by taking away a lot of mundane tasks. To take one example, it can enable call centre agents to switch mundane calls for more complex cases, which can be more challenging and interesting for employees. 

Even the creative industries, such as advertising, marketing, and writing, are increasingly finding that automation has a role to play in augmenting the creative process. As an example, when writing Stepping into the Metaverse, I had about 100 interviews and around 150 surveys to complete. I was able to do these fully automated. I switched on an automated system and saw interview invites popping up on my calendar. I then used AI software to transcribe the interviews and another AI tool to summarize the articles I read. I finished the book in three months, which was only possible because of automation.

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Limitless application

Every industry can benefit from automation. It’s about starting small and going from there. For me, automation is like Lego. The only limits to what you can build are your resources, funds and your imagination. You can literally come up with whatever you want to. 

The right question is not what automation could do – because everything is possible – but what should automation do. A lot of work can be automated. The question is: do we want it to be? Overall, I’m optimistic about the potential of automation, but there are downsides to automating whatever we can, wherever we can to save and make money. 

As people, we need meaning in our lives. And we need to ensure that our choices about the future make sense from a social as well as an economic perspective. This issue is going to become an increasingly interesting and relevant debate, and in that respect, automation gets right to the heart of what it means to be human.

See Mark speak at Meta Festival on 28 June 2022

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