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Automation: what you need to know

Automation is the use of machines and software to perform tasks that were previously done by a human or were otherwise impossible for a human.

The aim of automation is to boost efficiency and reliability. In many cases however, it actually replaces labor altogether.

Many argue that automation poses an existential threat to the current structure of the modern economy. If automated systems surpass humankind’s ability to add value, how will we all earn money?

An obvious example is self-driving cars. If, as key industry figures claim, autonomous vehicles will be hitting the streets in the next ten years, the entire goods transportation workforce will be made redundant overnight.

The counter argument is that automation will create new, more interesting jobs, and will free humans from tedious, repetitive work.

Whichever way you look at it, automation is at the heart of one of the most radical shifts in the modern world.

The origins of Automation

Automation has its roots in mechanisation. Mechanisation is usually defined as the replacement of a physical human task with a machine.

For millenia, humans have developed machines to ease their workload. The Romans in particular were excellent at it.

Their invention of water wheels to grind grain and lift irrigation water completely revolutionised food production and lifted millions out of starvation.

Fast-forward a couple thousand years or so, and you have the first independently powered combine harvesters – machines which further enhance efficiency in food production.

These mechanised systems however are limited, in that they are restricted to physical tasks, they cannot interact with other systems, and they cannot reevaluate processes dynamically.

It took the development of software, in particular Artificial Intelligence (read our guide to A.I. here), to turn mechanised machines into the intelligent systems we know now as ‘automation’.

This combination of intelligent software, coupled with improvements in robotics, has proved phenomenal at supercharging the speed at which humans are reducing their workload.

What Sectors Is Automation Changing?

Are there employees who have been replaced by automation in your workplace? Statistically speaking, probably.

While automation pretty much affects every sector out there, let’s take a look at four where the change has been particularly profound.

1. Packaging and Shipping

Ever been curious about how Amazon gets your order to you so quickly?

The e-commerce giant has been at the forefront of warehouse automation. Their ultimate goal is to virtually eradicate humans from the entire sales process, from processing your order, to locating it in the warehouse, to packaging and shipping.

Let’s look at what happens when you click ‘Buy’ on that book you’ve been wanting to read.

1. An automated email is sent to confirm your order. The order is then processed by software and sends and alert to the warehouse.

2. An intelligent shelf picking machine then finds the product in the warehouse and transports it to the packaging area.

3. A robot then wraps up the order and delivers it to the loading bay.

4. The loading bay sorts the package into the relevant delivery area and it is passed onto the delivery driver.

The only part of this process that involves humans (apart from process controllers) is the delivery. However, this is only a temporary, with Amazon planning to automate this as well via drone delivery.

2. Manufacturing

It’s not surprising that production made it to the list. Imagine assembling car parts or machines. At some point, you’ll forget or misplace an item, which means you’ll have to disassemble the whole machine and start again.

Automation rids production lines of these costly human errors and inconsistencies.

Aside from reliability, automated processes are generally quicker and (once you have made an initial investment in the technology) cheaper. This invariably leads to higher levels of production and, consequently, higher margins.

3. Transportation

Enjoy having a friendly chat with your Uber driver? Well, enjoy it while you can. Fully autonomous cars are about to hit the roads!

Once these vehicles become mainstream, they will essentially eradicate the employment of millions of cab and lorry drivers around the world.

They will, however, lower the cost of travel, which will enable loads of people to travel who wouldn’t previously have had the means.
But it’s not just cars! Aeroplanes have already adapted the use of autopilots. The pilots provide the commands and monitor the function, but the hard part is done by autopilot program.

4. Healthcare

Healthcare has improved dramatically as a result of automation over the past few decades.

Surgery is arguably the field that has benefitted the most. Robots are able to carry out complex procedures with pinpoint accuracy and perfect consistency every time.
This means that in some procedures robots are now routinely preferred over humans. In the future, it is difficult to envisage human surgeons playing any role in the procedure at all.

What’s Next?

Automation will transform our economy and lives beyond imagination over the next 50 years.

It will be both fascinating and worrying to see how governments react to this transition.

Optimists envision a technological utopia where we are finally free from work. Others envisage a more unequal society divided between those who own wealth producing machines and those who do not.

As the world-famous physicist Stephen Hawking puts it, “Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced [robots] wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine-owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution. So far, the trend seems to be toward the second option, with technology driving ever-increasing inequality.”

One thing for certain though is there is not a single industry that is safe.

The workers who will survive (and potentially even benefit from) the various waves of automation will be those who are open-minded and flexible, while those who commit themselves entirely to a single profession will be the most exposed.