The Future of Work: The Role of Machines in our Workforce
Automation is inevitable. It’s not a matter of ‘if’ or even ‘when’ but ‘how’. How will we use technology that replaces a human worker? What human roles should be replaced? These and other fundamental questions need to be addressed – by organisations, governments and the global community. The time to ask is now, as the world is on the brink of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
In a hospice, during your last few days, whose hand would you prefer to hold – a human’s or a robot’s?
Grim though it may be to contemplate dying, consider the prospect of a robot performing this sensitive role. Not only is this scenario entirely plausible, it illustrates the crux of many challenges ahead as automation of an increasingly vast array of tasks becomes possible.
Profound advances across physical, digital and biological realms are described as ushering in the Fourth Industrial Revolution which, unlike previous eras, is not driven by a single technology but the convergence of developments in artificial intelligence, machine learning, biomedical technology, virtual reality and other areas.
Japan has already implemented robotic workers in aged-care facilities. It could be the answer for a nation with longer life spans, lower birth rates and a looming shortfall in care givers. Confronting perhaps, but so too is the alternative, argues Australian biomedical engineer and entrepreneur Dr Jordan Nguyen. “Would you rather have a robot or no one?” he asks.
Nguyen joined technologists, scientists, business and social experts from across the Asia-Pacific region for Adobe Think Tank 2017 in Sydney. The live-streamed discussion focused on the prospect of machines becoming key players in almost every industry.
The Australian government reports that up to 40% of jobs could be impacted significantly or changed by 2025 to automation. It remains to be seen if workers will be retrained and redeployed or if their jobs will simply disappear.
Author and HR expert Abhijit Bhaduri, who is based in India, describes the next wave of technology as a “digital tsunami” for unprepared workers across the Asia-Pacific region, devastating those who depend on their job for a sense of identity and purpose.
“There’s a lot of thinking going on about how do we automate stuff, how do we use technology,” Bhaduri says. “I don’t think there’s enough debate about the ethical aspects of it. I don’t think there’s enough debate about how we reskill people.”
Concerns are rising about the impact of A.I. and machine learning on jobs, according to Adobe Future of Work: Asia Pacific 2017. The report surveyed office workers from Hong Kong, Korea, China, Australia, New Zealand, India, Taiwan and Southeast Asia, with 27% of respondents indicating they are “extremely concerned” and 46% indicating “somewhat concerned” about advancing automation.
Office workers are concerned about the impact of A.I and Machine Learning on their jobs...
Q. As Machine Learning (ML) and Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) gain popularity, what is your position on the impact these technologies will have on your job?
(As a reminder, artificial intelligence is the broader concept of machines being able to carry out tasks that would normally require human intelligence. Machine learning is a current application of A.I. which gives
computers the ability to learn without being explicitly programmed.)
computers the ability to learn without being explicitly programmed.)
“Yes, technology is advancing at an incredible and exciting pace. But we have agency over what happens to us and to our workplaces and to our organisations and to our societies.”
— Sarah Kaine. Associate Professor of Human Resource Management and Employee Relations, UTS Business School
Role of business
Productivity gains from technology don’t necessarily have to cost jobs, the Head of Culture and Capability at IDFC Bank in India, Harlina Sodhi, says.
Sodhi, an expert in employee engagement, offers the example of an IT company in India that promised to save jobs during an economic downturn if employees could keep sales up. “I’m selling to save my colleague’s job” became the pitch to customers – and it worked, Sodhi says. “In India, the employee-first concept really caught on.”
How organisations manage the shifting value of human work over the next few years will be pivotal, says Adobe’s Director of Transformation and Digital Strategy for Asia-Pacific, Mark Henley.
“For the first time we have an option to offer choice that allows organisations to be people-centric, not process or technology-centric. And I would hope that more thoughtful organisations would put their people first, and that people relate to customers and relate to better results,” Henley says.
“An employee-centric approach coupled with the right technologies liberates the native creativity in all of us, allows that cognitive surplus to be used in a way that is appropriate for everybody in the equation, both the company and the employee.”
Controlling our destiny
The ability of new technology to make decisions is one its most exciting aspects; however, it’s the decisions made by people that will have more lasting consequences.
...Yet most office workers are willing to try use A.I for mundane tasks today
Q. How interested would you be in using Artiﬁcial Intelligence technology to help perform mundane work-related tasks today?
“We must not cede control to technology – these are not foregone conclusions,” says Associate Professor Sarah Kaine, an employee relations expert at the University of Technology, Sydney.
“Yes, technology is advancing at an incredible and exciting pace. But we have agency over what happens to us and to our workplaces and to our organisations and to our societies.
“We don’t have to have 40% obsolescence. We can think of ways where we work together with technology. It’s not beyond our imagination. If we can do all this wonderful technological stuff, we can certainly think about what this means for society.”
For Dr Fiona Kerr, Industry Professor (Neural and Systems Complexity) at the University of Adelaide, South Australia, the most important consideration is how to value the unique contribution of human workers.
Kerr completed a two-year study on the neurophysiological impact of touch and eye-gaze on healing and trust, shedding light on, among other things, when using a robot nurse would be helpful.
“It is not ‘Do we have the robot or nobody?’ It is getting smart enough to know when we need the human there for that last five minutes,” Kerr says.
“One of the most important things is to really get a handle on what do humans bring to the workplace which is unique? What can you technologise? And how do you use both of them really well together? One of the things we have to be really careful about is what relationship we want to have with technology.”
Our future workforce won't see humans be replaced by machines but reskilled to work with them. Adobe is already using A.I. to support digital leaders in creating amazing experiences through Adobe Sensei.
Watch our latest installment of Think Tank in Sydney, Australia
Explore with Think Tank thought leaders as we consider a future where people and machines work seamlessly together, redefining our experiences at work and in our everyday lives.