Don't Fear the Robot: It's Time to Embrace Automation
Have robots been making you a bit nervous of late? Not the bad sci-fi kind of robots, with lasers and spaceships. No, I'm talking about the boring everyday industrial robots that are quickly becoming better at doing ... all kinds of different things.
Many have worried that machines that are able to learn, decide, and execute may eventually replace humans even in high-skill jobs. Although the U.S. IT industry saw an increase of 198,200 net jobs in 2015, a number of IT professionals fear losing work to automation and are uncertain about their future in the sector.
Whether the 2013 prediction by Oxford University researchers Carl Frey and Michael Osborne that "47 percent of all jobs in the United States (will) be lost to automation by 2033" is realistic or not, it's a fact that machine learning, robotic process automation (RPA) and artificial intelligence are rendering a number of occupations obsolete.
Extinction of jobs, however, is nothing new. Over the centuries, many occupations have vanished or morphed into different jobs. The advent of electricity saw lamplighters lose their jobs. Similarly, refrigeration made ice cutters redundant and advancements in phone technology put many a switchboard operator out of work.
So, the question today is not whether jobs will be lost, but which jobs are likely to disappear. Many rote, predictable tasks have already been automated, and efforts are now on to automate cognitive functions such as the collection and processing of data.
As technology continues to evolve, automation will increase — but that isn't necessarily a threat. Many see it as an opportunity. Attitude is of key importance here. Engaging with automation rather than resisting it will enable one to successfully adapt.
Whose Job Is Already On the Line?
So, what kinds of IT jobs can already be done by machines, or are likely to be handled in the near future by automated processes? If your role comprises predictable, repetitive tasks, it will likely be automated sooner rather than later. Machines are already capable of performing routine work in predictable circumstances.
For many IT workers, routine work forms only part of their job, in which case job modification is a possibility. As an example, those who spend a lot of time processing data, generating reports and documenting tickets could move on to creative and strategic activity once their more routine tasks are automated.
According to a KPMG survey, roughly 75 percent of U.S. tech CEOs surveyed expected at least 5 percent of roles in marketing, sales and technology to be lost to automation and machine learning. In 2016, McKinsey and Company reported that some jobs at higher skill levels might also be at risk if those jobs could be executed by software programs.
Already, many IT workers use automated tools to perform a variety of functions. Some of the most common automation processes are group policies, custom scripts and update tools.
Whose Job Is 'Safe' ... For Now?
According to a recent report by U.K. nonprofit Nesta, people in creative occupations such as computer programming and jobs that involve managing people needn't fear automation. Experienced software engineers and developers who can modernize existing capacity and develop and manage robotic process automation will also continue to be sought-after hires.
Automation is generating massive volumes of data and companies that can derive useful intelligence from this data enjoy a competitive edge. Being able to sift data, look at the big picture and discern market trends and openings is a valuable skill today. The demand for data analysts is robust, with IT titans Google and Microsoft hiring such professionals in large numbers.
Automation is actually creating work for people with advanced mathematical skills, as well as knowledge of how the human mind works. Such expertise is needed to improve systems and automate processes, in order to help companies optimize standards of service delivery.
A systems engineer's role could easily morph into that of an automation engineer who plans, develops, simulates and tests machines and automated processes for precise functions.
IT professionals who supervise and manage human workers are also unlikely to lose their job to a robot in the immediate future. Managing people involves nuanced and complex interactions with others, something a machine is yet unable to do. (Of course, managers are only safe for as long as there human workers who need to be managed.)
Even among vulnerable IT workers, a general attitude of "Don't fear the reaper" often prevails.
Spiceworks spoke with IT pros at a number of medium and large businesses to determine how they felt about automation. Of the 194 IT personnel surveyed, 93 percent said they saw no threat to their jobs, while 88 percent were of the view that RPA would free them from mundane, repetitive work and enable them to focus on mentally stimulating and strategic activity.
They actually look forward to developing innovative solutions, upgrading their skills and modernizing present technology. Additionally, 85 percent thought automation would enhance efficiency with 54 percent expecting it to speed up problem solving while reducing errors.
What Can I Do to Protect My Value?
There are two ways to look at this. You can embrace change, upgrade your skills, and work with emerging technologies. The other, more paranoid option is to view increasing automation as a threat and resist it. The focus should be on working with machines, not against them.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, which offers a projection of different jobs 5-10 years from now, can give you an idea about the future value of your current role. List all your skills, and single out those that can't be automated. Those are the skills you want to deploy to develop solutions for businesses in the era of automation.
Robots don't have emotional intelligence, or communication and soft skills, which are essential for deftly managing relationships between different stakeholders. It's no wonder that the demand for these skills is growing.
In order to be of value, workers in all industries need to learn to do tasks that are difficult for machines to accomplish. Despite all of the movies you've seen, it will likely be more than a little while before robots can ideate, look at the big picture and discern trends and understand human psychology and manage relationships.
According to the Technology Vision 2016 report published by Accenture, high-level expertise in a specialization is no longer the key deciding factor when recruiting IT and business executives. Today, the most important factors are ability to learn quickly, to multitask and readiness to adapt.
Increasing automation will gradually free people from performing dull, routine work and enable them to focus on stimulating tasks that are beyond a machines capabilities. Rather than fear automation, we should realize that it actually presents workers the opportunity to develop their potential and discover their innate value — provided they are ready to adapt and learn continuously.