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What if automation doesn’t spell ‘the end of work,’ but merely the end of monotonous work, like making fancy coffees? (BOGDAN BRATU/ISTOCKPHOTO)
What if automation doesn’t spell ‘the end of work,’ but merely the end of monotonous work, like making fancy coffees? (BOGDAN BRATU/ISTOCKPHOTO)

Technology

Automation is good – if it makes my job easier Add to ...

Driving remains one of my least favourite things to do, especially in downtown Toronto. Between congestion, construction, aggressive drivers and bikers, I often sigh with relief when I finally shift the gear into park, thankful that no one was hurt and the car remains unscathed.

However, I really appreciate being a passenger. It gives me the chance to enjoy music, talk radio, and conversations with my husband and kids. Even taking in the sights of the city makes me happy. So when a recent study came out asking U.S. drivers whether they would hand over their keys in favour of self-driving cars, I’d align myself with the 20 per cent who said yes.

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I’m all in favour of automation, especially when it makes my life easier. And it certainly won’t stop at cars. So let’s imagine how automation will affect our lives a decade in the future. You wake up, then eat breakfast in the car while it automatically drives your kids to school and you to work. On the way, you instruct it to take you to the nearest coffee shop. In this case, it is a Briggo coffee kiosk. The machine, which is calibrated to mimic the moves of a champion barista, has already prepared your drink because you ordered it in the car on your smartphone. The drink is prepared perfectly, since it memorizes each customer’s order, but the only humans around are other customers.

Given all this automation, the big question remains: Do you still have a job to go to and if so, what is it? By then, automated cars may have disrupted the taxi, bus and trucking industries. All those baristas will have migrated into other roles in the service industry, if they still exist. Creative roles and jobs in the knowledge worker industry have also been hit.

This isn’t science fiction. One recent report from the University of Oxford examined 702 occupations and concluded that 47 per cent of U.S. employment is at risk over the next decade or two.

Another recent report by Gartner predicts that business leaders aren’t adequately preparing for the deep business impact smart machines will make in the next seven years alone.

“Most business and thought leaders underestimate the potential of smart machines to take over millions of middle-class jobs in the coming decades,” Kenneth Brant, research director at Gartner said in a press release. “Job destruction will happen at a faster pace, with machine-driven job elimination overwhelming the market’s ability to create valuable new ones.”

Still, I remain optimistic that our future doesn’t need to look like a dystopian, robotic apocalypse. What if automation doesn’t spell “the end of work,” a term popularized by Jeremy Rifkin’s book with that title almost 20 years ago, but merely the end of monotonous work?

The rise of automation may end up doing both, according to Frank Koller, a workplace writer and the author of Spark, a book about the corporate addiction to layoffs. To explain how automation can spell the end of some jobs, Mr. Koller, cites travel agents. Fifteen years ago, there was a travel agent on every corner. Most of that work is gone now, he said.

In other cases, automation and information technology have made work not only more interesting, but improved the customer experience, such as in the courier industry. He recalls that a few years ago, to send a package, you needed to wait for a phone call to ensure it arrived. Tracking technology now allows you to continuously keep tabs on your package. We still need couriers, but the customer experience is greatly improved. In this case, technology made the industry more efficient.

“The potential is really fascinating. The purpose of technology should be to make work more interesting, so that we can develop a society of ‘new artisans’ who benefit from higher technology, making their jobs more productive and sustainable and keeping customers happy,” Mr. Koller said.

The term “new artisans,” Mr. Koller said, refers to those jobs in the middle – between baristas and hedge fund managers – that rely on a combination of intellectual knowledge and skills. That could include trades, such as plumbers and machinists, that require some component of physical work, or even journalists.

Mr. Koller believes we need to have a broad discussion about the purpose of IT and its impact on jobs since “it seems to see doing more with less human input as its prime goal.”

In other words, let’s focus on automation enhancing the work experience, rather than replacing it outright. This way, we can continue to afford daily luxuries, like coffee made with computerized precision.

Leah Eichler is founder of r/ally, a mobile collaboration platform for enterprises. E-mail: leah@rallyyourgoals.com

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