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Automation: Is it a Race that Humans can Win?

By Dick Weisinger

Companies forced to shift large numbers of workers to remote work during the pandemic were a major driver in the advancement of ‘digital transformation’. And as digital transformation advanced, so did the use of automation.

A study by Workato found that there was a large increase in the number of automated processes introduced during and after the pandemic. And, when it came time to return to work, employers experienced difficulty in finding workers. This has only caused employers to push harder to implement automation. Prior to the pandemic, just 15 percent of companies were using any kind of automation, but that number has risen to more than 33 percent now. Customer interaction and collaboration apps are two areas where there have been the biggest increases.

Automation definitely has positive aspects, particularly from the employer perspective. Businesses are experiencing huge benefits by adopting automation. They’re more agile and they have seen efficiency improvement by as much as ten times.

But the same is not necessarily true for employees. Barack Obama said in 2017 that “the next wave of economic dislocations won’t come from overseas. It will come from the relentless pace of automation that makes a lot of good middle-class jobs obsolete.” Many economists agree that automation, rather than globalization, has the main culprit in job loss and stagnating wages over the last decade.

Clare Cain Miller, wrote for the New York Times that “robots are to blame for up to 670,000 lost manufacturing jobs between 1990 and 2007, and that number will rise because industrial robots are expected to quadruple.”

Nan Craig, a London-based researcher of work with the Centre for Global Studies, said that “the social/economic danger of automation is not in the technology itself, it’s that the benefits of automation don’t accrue to everyone equally.”

Molly Kinder, researcher at the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program, said that women will be hit disproportionately hard. “That’s in part because women are overrepresented in some of these marginalized occupations like a cashier or a fast-food worker, and also in a large numbers in clerical jobs in offices.”

James Bessen, who heads the Technology and Policy Research Initiative at Boston University, said that “there’s real pain involved. There’s a real question about how these gains get distributed, about who’s suffering, who’s bearing the brunt in these transitions.”

Daron Acemoglu writes that automation has the potential for either highly utopian or highly dystopian predictions. But current implementations of automation are currently “closer to the dystopian end of labor automation”. He said that there is “potential for AI to empower teachers to adapt their materials in real time, and for blue-collar workers to collaborate with robotics technology.” But he worries that, to date, “automation is largely presented to workers as an ultimatum, a forced collaboration driven by a vision of efficiency defined by scale and statistical optimization.”

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