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Automation: between opportunity and threat

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/Vasin Lee)

The automation of millions of jobs is endangering the future hopes and ambitions of people, according to Jim Yong Kim, the World Bank chief. He raised these concerns during a speech in New York to the World Bank group at the end of last year. However, he is not alone in his opinion.   

From political threats to economic growth, these comments are a reflection of the wider concerns around the ‘automation of jobs’. Today, these are mirrored by hundreds of articles and discussions, supported by the likes of Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk, who often use their high profile status to warn about the potential perils of different kinds of Artificial Intelligence (AI).   

We are living in a digital revolution as significant as the industrial revolution, with technology shaking the foundations of the workforce. So much so, Accenture estimated that by 2035 AI could add £654bn to the national economy.

Indeed, computers are already surpassing the human brain at sheer processing, and the true era of AI is not too far away. So where do humans fit in?   

AI making work more interesting 

Whilst emerging technologies such as AI has the potential to reshape the future of work, it will be humans who will accelerate its impact. In fact, it will enhance the modern workplace and empower people to spend more time on interesting work.   

Technology like AI helps remove the mundane process side of things, helping free up time for people to do more creative work. In addition, data analytics provide powerful insights that can enhance decision-making and inform more valuable relationships.   

Whilst many have voiced their concern around AI taking over human jobs and dictating a new way of living, both at home and in the workplace, in order to really understand these concerns, we need to look at the types of AI.   

In the first instance, we have ‘strong’ AI. ‘Strong’ AI is the computer power that connects all the data collected throughout time and available on the internet. It is the enormous amount of data plugged into AI which will enable it to learn how to become more human.   

Once this process begins, the purpose of AI would be to evolve and ‘teach itself’. And it is at this point where humans will have little or no ability to influence it anymore. That’s where it could be argued that things could go wrong.   

But we also have ‘narrow’ AI. This is the AI that is being incorporated into various daily devices for the purpose of optimising a certain task. When focusing on targeted pieces of intelligence, this type of AI can offer huge benefits to our day to day life. From helping choose a tailored holiday or advising on the best outfit to processing large amounts of data in the workplace or helping revolutionise healthcare, ‘narrow’ AI has the potential to shake up every and each industry as we know.   

Automation and people 

So what’s the answer to help people and technology work together? Immediate changes to education are needed in order to upskill the workforce for the expertise needed in the future, such as creative thinking, problem-solving and agility. But it doesn’t stop there. Because technology is changing all the time, current employees must also be given continuous training opportunities in order to acquire new, specific knowledge and skills, often related to technology and its applications. 

From analysing food wastage to consumer tastes to the supply chain of a product, ground-breaking ‘narrow’ AI can be used to further research and help with amalgamating and processing large amounts of data – amounts that are complex or time consuming for employees to handle. This is, for example, revolutionising the way we approach marketing or sales. For example, when it comes to personalisation – the next big trend in retail and customer engagement – machine learning and AI has the capability to offer products and services based on a much deeper level of customer understanding through the use of complex data.   

From critical thinking to creativity – people mustn’t see technological advancements as a threat, but rather as an opportunity to free their time so they can focus on more high level work, such as contact time with customers. This is especially true when considering that a new report of senior business leaders from Insight UK found that over three quarters still believe face-to-face time with customers is critical.   

What’s clear is that it’s time we adopt the viewpoint that we should no longer look at technology and humans in silos, but a force to be reckoned with when they come together.   

Automation and businesses 

The age of digital disruption is seeing business models, industries and working practices transform, with jobs that didn’t exist a few years ago being created. What this means is there are increasing demands for new skill sets in virtually every job and profession. As a result, hiring and retaining workers who are agile and who can adapt to the fast pace of change is and will be critical for staying ahead of the competition curve.   

As the UK continues its transformation into an increasingly digitally-led business environment, it comes as no surprise that boosting tech skills will improve job prospects, thus in turn boosting the UK’s economy. So what can organisations do to safeguard their businesses now and in the future? 

From the collaboration between industry and education to ensuring a leadership pipeline is put in place, there are a number of ways that businesses – both small and large – can work together to upskill both the current and future workforce. 

One of the biggest changes that businesses will face off the back of this transformation will be the need for employees to be more agile. As not everyone has this ability to learn new skills on the job, recognising those that do at hiring stage will be critical. What’s great however, is that in recent years, pinpointing this has been made all the more easy through assessment tools which leverage large volumes of data in order to identify specific aspects of an individual or organisation.    

With all the changes taking place around us, the time is now for talent acquisition professionals and business leaders to adopt a more strategic approach to the future and current workforce. With a strategic approach, organisations can ensure they’ll have the right employees to drive their future success.   

With all this in mind, one thing is clear, it is those that neglect a forward-thinking approach that will be the ones left struggling behind their competitors.    

Final thoughts 

With an underlining concern that automation will replace human jobs in the future, it’s important that business leaders, politicians, and workers’ representatives ensure a true partnership between people and technology in a bid to reveal greater value for organisations.     

Matthew Thomas, European Market Leader at Futurestep (opens in new tab) 

Image Credit: Vasin Lee / Shutterstock

Matthew Thomas is the European market leader for Financial Services at Futurestep. He has worked in senior finance recruitment for over 15 years.