What roles will humans have in a world of automation?

05/12/2017

Fears about technological advances leading to job losses have existed since the industrial revolution. But the frenetic pace of advance in IT is more than the latest example of a repetitive cycle of change and adjustment. We are in the midst of an automation revolution that is transforming modern working practices beyond all recognition. McKinsey statistics show that about 30% of tasks in 60% of occupations could be computerised if organisations chose to fully incorporate the latest software and functionality into their businesses. Reports like this have only served to fuel the fear of workers being replaced by machines. But is this really as big of a threat as we imagine?

Will automation replace you in your role?

For many, particularly in the financial sector, it isn’t a case of if your role will begin to implement automation, but rather, when. Certain industries such as accounting and legal assistance are facing potentially 99% of current positions being replaced by automation according to the Future of Employment study conducted by the University of Oxford. This is a figure that is the subject of hot debate, however, and it’s important to consider is that automation probably won’t mean outright ‘replacement’ of human workers in every case. Rather, many roles will be augmented by technology, with day to day tasks changing as technology evolves.

Microsoft is keen on emphasising that its products are not designed to make workers redundant in their roles. Instead, smarter software is designed to improve worker efficiency in key areas, taking over responsibility for the menial and repetitive tasks.

This was a major focus of Microsoft’s latest Surface event, where Special Projects Editor at the Future Library Steve Tooze commented: “Robots will actually create jobs because humans have unique thinking. They will take away the grind that we don’t want to do. This will free us up to the imaginative stuff, the creative stuff.”

Which skills/roles will be the most key to possess to avoid automation?

Whilst automation will certainly replace roles which consist of repetitive and predictable tasks, roles which require adjusting to unexpected outcomes, managing variable data and responding to issues or complaints will remain human-led. Major tech leader Ford categorises these types of jobs into three areas.

  • Genuine creativity – Jobs which require a great level of creativity and open-minded thinking, something which current AI is unable to match humans on. Any job that requires you to consider outside perspectives, and synthesize them to present a balanced view, will be hard to replicate with AI. Such skills are a major component of an accountant’s day to day work.
  • Building complex relationships – The level of trust between a client and a business, formed over 20/30 years is very unlikely to be matched if all those familiar faces are replaced by machines. Accountancy is dependent on trust, and people are less likely to place all their faith in a machine which can break if they have had long-standing and reliable interactions with humans performing the same roles.
  • Highly unpredictable – If there’s one Achilles heel for AI, it’s unpredictability. AI functions using a long list of pre-determined responses to data. If something happens which is outside of this pre-taught response, automation is rendered useless. Humans can use ingenuity and open thinking to deal with unexpected issues, meaning we’ll always need to remain on hand should something go wrong with the automated systems. In our unpredictable and volatile times, this is a powerful asset.

How should your company introduce automation?

For most businesses, the acceptance of automation is likely to be the key to continued success. The World Economic Forum recently stated its prediction that 47% of global roles could be automated by 2033. Automation is clearly an inevitability for many, but what are the benefits of embracing automation now rather than later? For one, early adoption of automation can allow for a more gradual transition from organic to automated role fulfilment. Companies that wait until systems and processes can no longer possibly keep up with demands will struggle to remain relevant and competitive against those who have embraced automated alternatives for some roles.

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