Digital technology could create, rather than destroy, jobs - expert

2017-07-30 14:52
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Asimo robot. (AP)

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Cape Town – In the long term the rise of robots will not cause widespread unemployment or inequality, new research suggests.

Alice Leedale, fixed income strategist at global asset management firm Schroders, said there are those that argue that the negative effects of automation are already becoming apparent in the US, where recent decades have seen a “hollowing out” of manufacturing employment, driven by technology and globalisation.

“At present automation is also making rapid advancements in both low-skilled as well as high-skilled service roles that have previously been set aside for white-collar workers.”

IBM has for example developed an artificial intelligence “engine” which is beating human oncology specialists in its diagnosis and treatment of cancer in nearly one in three cases.

With developments like these, Leedale says, it isn’t hard to paint a bleak picture of further breath-taking advances in automation creating an increasingly divided society, where a so-called “second machine age” prompts mass displacement of labour accompanied by an increasingly wealthy robot-owning class.

READ: Friends and fiction: The rise of robots may not be a bad thing

The resultant rise in inequality could dampen consumer demand, put pressure on government finances, and even precipitate a further lurch towards populism in the developed world.

“Whether we are in South Africa or China, it’s important as human beings to become adaptable as well as re-skill ourselves,” she points out.

According to Leedale, while foreseeable transitional costs will be incurred, the latest Schroders research suggests that in the long term the rise of robots will not cause widespread unemployment or vast inequality.

Hope from history

The history of technological change however also offers plenty of hope. Over the course of the 20th century, not only has technology led to huge productivity improvements that raised living standards for all, it has almost certainly created more jobs than it has destroyed.

Moreover, an automation revolution should bring a much-needed boost to productivity and this would not only help offset recent poor productivity growth in many countries, but also the downward pressure on growth from ageing populations, Leedale notes.

Changing roles in the workplace

Valter Adão, chief digital and innovation officer at Deloitte Africa, says it is important to consider what uniquely human skills will be valued in an environment where intelligent machines can do many tasks currently performed by people.

“Evolving technology, demographics and power dynamics are all connected and those connections make all the difference in the future of work. As robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), the gig economy and jobs are being reinvented, creating the ‘augmented workforce’ becomes the focus."

(An augmented workforce is where people, robots, and AI are working side by side.)

READ: Replacing humans with robots take longer than expected - report 

Digital technology is having a profound effect on the 21st  century organisation, Adão says. “It is fundamentally changing the way we work, the way we manage, where we work, how we organise, the products we use, and how we communicate.”

However, even though there are many changes, there are some aspects that remain constant. Organisations, filled with people, still exist to unite around a common purpose, common values, strategic objectives, and to get things done. People remain the most critical asset of most organisations, but are increasingly in the shadow of machines and in a maze of technologies.

Individuals are still bound by hours in the day and their mental ability to process information. Work (done by computers and people) must be coordinated to create maximum value.

“Organisations still need great leaders, managers, and employees at all levels to get things done in an efficient and effective way. We believe there is tremendous unrealised value from this new era yet to be claimed in how we communicate and collaborate in the future work environment,” he notes.

READ: Fear of jobs bloodbath in SA over automation  

The future working environment will require a shift in how the workforce communicates and collaborates. Digital tools will be critical enablers for increased cross-cultural teaming.

"Collaboration strengthens relationships, so the choice of technologies should ideally allow for relationship-building activities as well as efficient communications," Adão says.

As companies move from email to other tools for communicating, collaborating, and connecting, they will need to develop the right cultural context and adapt workplace policies and processes to help ensure the environment and expectations are set up to enable successful adoption of whatever digital capabilities are implemented.

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