Editorial Notebook

Increasing automation

To consider that the implementation of automation could be slowed or reversed is a concept that should be left behind at the point we are at in history. Automation is already here, and its influences will only continue to grow throughout my lifetime. But automation isn’t just specialized robots building products; it is rapidly spreading to markets which, only a decade ago, few could have ever foreseen anyone but humans working in these jobs outside science fiction.

However, science fiction is now reality. There is a reason that the college majors with the most opportunities and highest potential pay are those in computer science and engineering. These are the careers which will have a direct impact on automation. The real push that needs to be made is to improve education infrastructure so that as many people as possible who have the potential to succeed in these fields are able to get the proper education. However, this is the easy part. The real question is to find the ways to employ those who hold jobs that may be rendered obsolete by the emerging automation market within a decade.

The perfect example of technology replacing a full group of living things is described in one of my favorite internet videos titled “Humans Need Not Apply” by educational content creator CGPGrey (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Pq-S557XQU). The video uses the analogy of the move from horse-travel to automobiles when looking forward to the future of our workforce. The horse population peaked over a century ago before a rapid drop off as the use of horses in all industries reached virtually zero thanks to the implementation of a “better” technology. Of course there is an argument against this “better” label; however, it cannot be argued from a purely business standpoint, and, like it or not, that is the driving force of our society. Automation offers an all too similar solution. The only difference in these two situations is that horses were never going to have the foresight to alter their path; the question is, will humans?

For most, the thought of automation paints some variation of the picture which includes hydraulic arms assembling a refrigerator. However, while the manufacturing industry is automation’s roots, its future lies within the service industry. Automation has proven real-world applications in markets that range from teaching, writing, law, medicine, transportation, and even the industry of writing automation code.

The most ironic part is that one of the largest industries about to be flipped on its head is the same one that effectively eradicated horses from our world just a century ago. Autonomous, or “self-driving” vehicles are no longer a technology of the future but a well-tested and proven one that in all cases (both safety and economically) are a better alternative to the use of a vehicle operated by a human being. There is very good data on consumer perceptions of these vehicles with an especially clear study done at the University of Michigan this past July. The study found that a large majority of people from the U.S., the U.K. and Australia are both aware of this technology and its benefits. Additionally, outside the U.S., less than 15 percent of those surveyed are “very concerned” about actually using an autonomous vehicle, while nearly 30 percent of Americans have this concern. This result may directly correlate to the use of public transportation in these other nations compared with the U.S., as an autonomous vehicle is in a way similar to something like a bus or subway, where the user has no control over its operation, with the only difference being a computer operator over a human.

Growing worldwide automation, if implemented correctly and even with consideration for the loss of jobs, will have a positive net impact in terms of overall human safety. It will remove humans from situations which currently have poor or dangerous conditions. This is why, instead of continuing to consider improving working conditions in places like manufacturing plants, mines, or long haul trucking shifts across the world, attention should be refocused to the proper removal of the human element in these roles, and then, in turn, face the much larger impending issue; that is, to ensure that the lives of those whose jobs will be replaced continue to include meaning and happiness.