Automation Is The Future – But It’s Going to Be A While
For years automation has been the specter looming over relations between employers and employees, especially in industrial and manufacturing sectors. To be sure, robots have made impressive strides, and artificial intelligence advancements make the future seem like it is closing in, ready to sweep good jobs out from under the American labor force.
But even though robots are approaching the point of individual judgment, sensing emotions, or even driving, the pace of that future is still questionable as of yet. While cutting edge technology is giving movie enthusiasts Terminator flashbacks, introduction of automation in industrial applications has been much slower.
The discussion frequently focuses on the erosion of entire jobs, but the right level of detail to scrutinize is that of each individual task and process. The impact of automation so far has been heavily focused on supporting the labor of human workers, eliminating repetitive and time consuming tasks and allowing more productive contributions by employees. Implementation of robots has resulted in reduced errors, better quality, and higher productivity.
Higher productivity has been especially attractive to businesses as growth in the economy seemed to stagnate. Research by McKinsey estimates that automation could improve productivity anywhere between 0.8% and 1.4% for the American economy over the next decades. Compare this to figures around 0.4% for early robotics in the 90’s, or 0.6% for IT innovations from 1995 to 2005. It is clear that automation presents a huge opportunity for American businesses.
Only around 5% of jobs are currently candidates for full replacement by automation. However, nearly every occupation includes tasks that could be replaced by automation. Tasks that are candidates consist mainly of physical labor in highly predictable environments and data collection and processing. Roughly 51% of tasks in the United States are made up of such activities. The potential time and cost savings are immense – and manufacturing, food service, and retail trade stand to benefit the most. These sectors have the highest concentration of such tasks.
The debate frequently focuses on low-cost, low-skill jobs that could be automated. But middle- and high-income occupations also stand to benefit. The current trend of automation will also continue for these jobs; employees supported through automated processes that enable them to focus on the tasks that humans are irreplaceable for. It is time that labor force and employers alike saw the relationship between robots and humans as symbiotic rather than adversarial.
The good news is that all of us will have abundant time to get used to this relationship. The pace of automation continues to be relatively slow. Even current technologies will not be implemented to their full potential for years to come – change will be gradual. As this development continues, many factors affect the eventual speed that innovations are deployed. Cultural, legal, and technological issues all play an important part in determining the pace. McKinsey estimates that half of today’s activities could be automated by 2055 – but the myriad influencing factors might accelerate or delay the process by 20 years.