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Automating Progress: The Future of Automation

As machines get smarter and more efficient, what place do we have in the world of tomorrow?

Chris Boorman
Chris Boorman, July 5, 2017 10:30 am
Blog > Automation | Digital Transformation > Automating Progress: The Future of Automation

We’ve all read the dystopian fiction, watched those apocalyptic movies and heard a myriad of prophetic warnings heralding our obsolescence. Surely now we’re just a couple of years from flipping the switch on a Skynet of our own making and condemning mankind to the annals of history.

Actually, we’re not entirely sure what the future holds, but it’s probably not fire and brimstone.

For detractors and naysayers of technology, could there be a more fitting image than Terminator 2’s opening shot? A hulking, skeletal, humanoid machine crushing a human skull beneath its foot. Listening to ‘techno-skeptics’ can sure make it feel as though that’s the end which inevitably awaits us. If we continue down our current path of imbuing machines with increasing levels of autonomy, learning abilities and artificial intelligence, eventually we’ll inadvertently construct our own obsolescence – if not destruction! We must be careful, unless we want to find ourselves subjugated by a machine army…

If you ask me, however, the need to bow before new robot overlords isn’t coming any time soon. In fact, it couldn’t be further from the truth.

…The Way of The Luddites

On the surface, mechanization and automation can appear daunting ideas, for sure. The notion that we may soon be replaced by machines is a harrowing concept, one we’ve unfortunately seen in action before (here’s looking at you, Luddites).

That said, we’ve now been automating things in one way or another since 240 BC, when the Greek engineer, Ctesibius, invented the water clock. Nonetheless, we’ve somehow managed to go over 2,200 years without making ourselves entirely redundant! Yet today there remains a handful of people who still claim, ‘the [proverbial] End is nigh’.

History has shown automation does have the potential to disrupt industry – and in the process of doing so, it simply changes our concept of work and jobs. Rarely, however, has it ever sounded the death knell for the need of human input. It can cause periods of displacement to human workers in the short-term, but in the long-term, automation has proved a benefit to our species.

Automated looms signaled the beginning of the end for those infamous Nottinghamshire weavers, while the rest of us benefited from more affordable clothing and fabric. However, as skilled artisans, the Luddites weren’t without work for long: after the invention of the sewing machine in 1846, the much-disputed textile industry underwent a resurgence in terms of human work.

If anything, automation has been a key driver in our continued success story: for every job lost, at least one more is often created. This has, in effect, doubled our ability to produce.

A study by consultancy firm Deloitte confirms this. They propose that over the course of the last 140 years, the advent of technology has created more jobs than it has deposed. The study shows the number of us performing repetitive manual work has plummeted, while those employed within, for example, carer roles or the technology sector, has sky-rocketed. It’s true mechanization and automation has all but eliminated human input in certain industries, such as agriculture (in the late 1800s, approximately 7% of the British population were classed as agricultural laborers. Today, it’s about 0.2%: a drop of 95%). Automation is removing the need for us to perform manual muscle work and lets us focus on more innovative projects.

That’s not to say automation isn’t without its challenges. For a business to get to a position where it’s ready to implement automated systems, it’s costly and time consuming. Robotworx, an ‘off-the-shelf’ robotics company serving the industrial sector, suggests a single automated robotic arm with welding capabilities costs between $30,000 and $50,000 – as a conservative estimate. And you’re not going to be getting much done with just one robot! Even once the systems are in place, it can be a while before any ROI is made. There’s also an increased maintenance cost with automated machines. However, the long-term advantages by far outstrip the short-term costs and disadvantages.

Where Are We Now?

Automation and smart-learning machines are becoming more and more prevalent within our everyday lives. Take a look around you and the odds are that automation, in some shape or form, has touched and sculpted almost everything you lay your eyes upon. From the use of the manufacturing automatons which produced your IKEA desk, to the automated retail checkout processes on your smartphone, even the coffee machine which helped you wake up this morning. Automation has become a pivotal part of everyday life.

It has helped to reduce the cost of basic necessities, such as food and drink, and made what would once have been deemed luxuries an everyday occurrence. Imagine, for example, being able to own a computer without the aid of the automated processes that have enabled us to shrink processors, speed up production and reduce costs.

Moreover, we’re not just seeing advances impact upon the manufacturing and commercial worlds. As we move further into this digital age, we’ve needed to develop smarter software and smarter solutions. We’ve needed to streamline and optimize legacy programs and systems, making them ready to cope with the demands of the user of the day. Automation has been key to enabling this, as it’s found ways of handing back man-hours to the company – man-hours which previously would have been spent on tedious, repetitive tasks. Our ability to automate software processes has enabled us to revolutionize the way we interact, communicate and do business via technology.

More of the same, only better, please.

As we begin to rely on automation more and more, undoubtedly things will change. Let’s take the retail environment, as an example. What if highly repetitive strenuous manual tasks, such as stock replenishment, became entirely automated? Hypothetically, that would free up members of staff, allowing them to focus on something more interpersonal, such as sales, driving the business.

The likelihood is the nature of what we consider work will change; jobs will change. Some may admittedly be lost altogether, but in turn, entirely new industries will be introduced. As our concept of work changes, the economy will too – it should expand, while the effort we exert to drive it should shrink. The march towards automation isn’t about stripping jobs from people, it’s about streamlining and increasing productivity.

As I said, there’s nothing to fear from our Robot Overlords. If anything, we should be welcoming them with open arms. All hail the T-800.

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Chris Boorman

Chris Boorman

Dr. Chris Boorman is Chief Marketing Officer at Automic. His doctorate in Physics and Engineering drives his strategic thinking by always looking to understand the stories data can reveal. Chris is passionate about the impact automation and technology can have on business.