The transition of physical and intellectual tasks from people to machines won’t just have minor impact to the business world. The coming wave of automation and robotics will fundamentally transform the workplace and will be, of course, irreversible.
ZDNet reports on a Deloitte report that looks at the hiring landscape for London during the next half decade with respect to increased automation. The results are mixed. The firm said that 73 percent of businesses plan to increase head counts, but another 41 percent forecast a reduction in employees due to greater usage of automation technologies.
The reason is simple: Machines do many things better than people do. The Deloitte report breaks down the near-term forecast:
The research indicates that the jobs least at risk from computerisation are in areas such as senior management and financial services; computers, engineering, and science; education; legal services; community services; the arts and media; and health care. The jobs most at risk are in office and administrative support work; sales and services; transportation; and construction and extraction.
Nicolas Carr, who made a big splash a decade ago with a book entitled “IT Doesn’t Matter,” raises some very troubling philosophical and practical questions about the rush to automate. The practical challenge is pretty straightforward. If humans are not often called on to perform certain tasks, they will lose those skills when they are needed, he told Computerworld’s Patrick Thibodeau:
The problem, and we see it with pilots and doctors, is when the computer fails, when either the technology breaks down, or the computer comes up against some situation that it hasn't been programmed to handle, then the human being has to jump back in take control, and too often we have allowed the human expert skills to get rusty and their situational awareness to fade away and so they make mistakes. At the practical level, we can be smarter and wiser about how we go about automating and make sure that we keep the human engaged.
The extent and precise nature of automation in the workplace will be determined by the ability of machines to do subjective tasks. The potential power of these platforms can be seen in ClickZ’s examination of marketing automation platforms (MAPs). Automation and robotics have subtle and overt differences. MAPs seem to be more of a sophisticated set of software automation programs. But the message is the same: It marks an effort to automate activities that were previously done by humans. This fits in nicely with the fears expressed by Carr.
The momentum toward automation and robotics will accelerate. On Monday, The Memphis DailyNews reported on comments by FedEx founder, chairman and CEO Fred Smith, who sees drones playing an ever-bigger part of company operations along with automated vehicles and lower human head counts in factories.
The impact of robotics directly on IT may be minimal today. It is certain to grow, however, as more and more brilliant programmers and other technologies grow to meet the challenges businesses face. Machines will eventually gain the ability to make the subjective calls that are currently made by humans, and that is something that IT professionals should definitely think about.
Carl Weinschenk covers telecom for IT Business Edge. He writes about wireless technology, disaster recovery/business continuity, cellular services, the Internet of Things, machine-to-machine communications and other emerging technologies and platforms. He also covers net neutrality and related regulatory issues. Weinschenk has written about the phone companies, cable operators and related companies for decades and is senior editor of Broadband Technology Report. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and via twitter at @DailyMusicBrk.