If you’ve been reading the news lately, or even glancing through it, chances are that you’ve come across the term ‘Automation’. It seems to be the talk of the town and relevant across a lot of industries, be it economics, technology, or even public policy.
But, what exactly is ‘automation’?
Put simply, automation is the “use or introduction of automatic equipment in a manufacturing or other process or facility”. While this definition calls out to manufacturing specifically, automation has seeped into almost every industry.
Historically, automation, in some form or the other, had always existed. Going back to the time of Greeks, we have proof of scientists and engineers working towards automating work-processes. Through medieval times and the Victorian era as well, we see many examples of the same. However, it was only the industrial revolution that truly ushered in the era of machines and automation.
Rise of Automation
While the manufacturing industry was the first to benefit from automation, today, process streamlining is a part of any large-scale industry, be it product-based or service-based. Even in offices that are relatively smaller in scale and operation, we see an affinity towards using the tools of automation.
“Automation, now going beyond routine manufacturing activities, has the potential, at least with regard to its technical feasibility, to transform sectors such as healthcare and finance, which involve a substantial share of knowledge work,” says a report from McKinsey on the subject.
It’s no surprise that companies are moving towards automation. After all, it’s nothing but the streamlining of operations, which makes the process more productive and cost effective.
However, increase in productivity comes at a cost. In this case, it is a very human cost. Invariably, automation replaces human beings. It takes the job of a person and does it better, and that’s why there’s a great debate surrounding the issue.
The big debate
Should our workplaces be automated? At the cost of laying of current employees. There are several arguments in favor and against the issue at hand. And both sides are making a strong case in their defense.
Let’s look at some facets of this debate and decide for ourselves if automation is worth it or not.
- Automation kills jobs
This is true. Automation does take away a lot of jobs. Think of automatic checkin machines at the airport; think of automated parking spaces; think of metros running on their own, think of ATMs. They are all examples of machines doing the jobs that were once done by a human being.
So yes, automation does kill jobs. But it doesn’t eliminate people. (But more on this later. )
- Automation is efficient
Yes, it is. In fact, that’s the whole point of automation. We prefer it only because it’s so much more efficient. Machines are best suited to carry out jobs that are repetitive and mechanical. And unlike human beings, machines don’t get bored; they don’t need breaks, sleep, or health benefits. And all these factors contribute towards the efficiency of automation.
- Automation isn’t regulated
Although not entirely true, this does hold fast for a substantial amount of automation happening around us. There’s not much legal or judicial matter present when it comes to dealing with automation.
Should it be regulated? Yes, it must be. However, it’s much more nuanced than any standard manufacturing or production process, and therefore making a proper framework for a holistic regulation of automation is going to take time.
- Automation is inevitable
While this sounds like a hyperbole, it is, by no means, an exaggeration. Sooner or later, automation will come to every industry. There’s no way to fight the tide of technology, and it’s best if we go forward in acceptance, and not in denial, of the fact.
So the real question that we have to answer isn’t ‘Should our workplaces be automated?’ Instead, what we should ask ourselves is this – ‘To what degree should we automate our workplaces?
“As automation technologies such as machine learning and robotics play an increasingly great role in everyday life, their potential effect on the workplace has, unsurprisingly, become a major focus of research and public concern,” the report from McKinsey continues.
That is the big challenge for policy makers — finding a right balance between automation and human resources.
The modern viewpoint
Many modern economists are trying to change the perspective that most people have towards automation, especially when it comes to the topic of machines and processes replacing humans and human effort.
They’re urging us to look at the situation differently. People are not being eliminated, skill sets are. For example, automated cars eliminates the skill set of driving, not the drivers themselves, who can learn new skills and change their professions.
This brings us to our second point point:
The modern view holds the government (and by extension, the people), accountable for investing time, energy, and money into skill building. A big part of Amartya Sen’s Nobel Prize winning research was dedicated to skill building. In what he called the “capabilities” approach, he argues that the only way to truly solve poverty is to enrich the people with different capabilities, and not just throw subsidies at them.
Therefore, we should work towards building our skill sets from an early age. Such a world view is essential for building a better tomorrow. There is, however, such a thing as excess. And often, excess of any thing is bad. On that note, we arrive at the penultimate section:
Curb your enthusiasm
There’s a thin line between good and bad automation. There are a lot of companies out there who deal with automation products and services, but not all of them understand this difference. It’s essential, therefore, that you buy your products/services from a team with expertise in the field.
Ricoh’s Document Management System, for example, is an ideal office automation product for mid-to-large offices. It enriches your workflow, digitizes your documentation process, and streamlines your business. More importantly, it’s completely safe and secure.
And it’s essential that these new technologies be as safe as they are essential. Cyber-terrorism is already being touted as the biggest threat to nations over the next century. In such a scenario, it’s imperative that the digital technologies we implement are build to withstand such threats.
In conclusion, we have to understand that automation isn’t the enemy. It can be a very useful tool when implemented properly by the right kind of people. It’s inevitable, and we’d better make our peace with that. However, it doesn’t need to be a cause of despair. In fact, with proper regulation and effective implementation, it can certainly be a cause to celebrate!