2016 will be the year of workplace automation

For decades, increasingly capable automated technology has been steadily changing the employment landscape. New innovations and increases in processing power are looking likely to cause a swathe of roles to undergo a robotic revolution, and for many 2016 could be the last year a human does their job

If you’re disturbed by the doomsday notion of the rise of the machines as depicted in the Terminator films, look away now. In its Top Predictions for 2016, six out of the ten forecasts by information technology research and advisory company Gartner involve the automation of jobs by robots and systems. Gartner says that within three years 45% of the fastest-growing companies will have fewer employees than instances of smart machines and more than three million workers globally will be supervised by a ‘robo-boss’.

If that has got you looking over your shoulder for your robotic replacement, while automation is sweeping into offices and shop floors, manufacturing is still at the forefront of its adoption. Industrial automation has been around since Henry Ford introduced mass production and electric machine tools a century ago, but we are now entering a fourth Industrial Revolution which will see smart factories consisting of interlinked, data-driven, self-monitoring systems and manufacturing equipment.

The human-free factory

One company enabling this new generation of factories is industrial automation specialist Renishaw, whose product line includes position feedback encoders so precise they are used in surgical robots as well as pick-and-place machines and silicon wafer handling systems. Based on current trends, assistant chief executive Ben Taylor has a clear vision of what lies ahead for 2016.

“We are seeing increasing investment in manufacturing automation in emerging markets as labour costs are rising, and where there are skills shortages, as automation is allowing an element of de-skilling,” says Taylor. “The other noticeable trend is towards greater use of work-handling robots and conveyor devices to move parts between machining and measurement tasks.”

The company practices what it preaches by continually introducing new levels of autonomy to its own manufacturing processes.

Image courtesy of Renishaw

Image courtesy of Renishaw

“Renishaw adopted automated processes very early in its production processes and we have fully automated machining processes within two of our machine shops,” says Taylor. “Using our own process control technologies and in-house developed handling systems, we have automated part and tool loading, in-cycle inspection, post-process verification, and turning operations. This enables us to run machines ‘lights-out’ [without human presence] for durations in excess of 24 hours, and in some cases, as much as 72 hours.”

This degree of automation requires super-accurate measuring, and Renishaw is also seeing a trend for its gauging systems being integrated into fully-automated machining cells. In these, robots load raw material into machine tools, then unload the machined parts directly onto a gauge for quality assessment. The data gathered is fed straight back to the machine control so that the process parameters can be corrected on the fly.

Professional help

But while automation has an established home in factories, it is also beginning to infiltrate law courts, surgeries, classrooms and even churches, taking over tasks previously limited to trained professionals. It’s a theme explored by Daniel Susskind, lecturer in Economics at Balliol College, University of Oxford, in a book he co-authored with his father Richard, The Future of Professions. It examines ten skilled occupations that could be radically disrupted by advances in technology.

He found the traditional way professions use new technologies is to streamline and optimise the way in which they already work, which in some cases remains unchanged since the 19th century. This includes doctors talking to patients using online materials, internet-enabled classrooms, and architects using computer-assisted building design software.

At the same time, a new wave of systems and machines is emerging that, either working alone or operated by very different types of people, can solve many of the problems professionals usually deal with. This second, more radical, wave is bringing about what Susskind calls incremental transformation, where though new and better ways of using and sharing expertise the traditional professions will be steadily dismantled.

“Last year 48 million people used online tax preparation software without the involvement of a traditional tax accountant,” he says. “Similarly, on eBay every year, 60 million disputes arise and are resolved online and without lawyers using what’s called an e-mediation platform. That’s 40 times the number of civil claims seen in the entire English and Welsh justice system.”

It would be easy to assume that carrying out this kind of complex work would involve some kind of artificial intelligence, but in fact an entirely different approach has made these latest innovations possible, a concept Susskind calls the AI fallacy.

While automation has an established home in factories, it is also beginning to infiltrate law courts, surgeries, classrooms and even churches, taking over tasks previously limited to trained professionals.

“We traditionally thought that the only way to build systems and machines that are capable of performing human tasks is to try and understand how human beings do them then describe a set of rules for a machine to follow,” he says.

Early chess computers, for example, relied on AI experts sitting down with Grandmasters and finding out how they played, though they struggled to describe how they made strategic leaps and creative judgements based on years of experience. But it wasn’t until IBM’s Big Blue computer threw massive processing power at the problem that it finally beat Gary Kasparov in 1997. Kasparov could plan up to 100 moves ahead; Big Blue was able to consider 330 million moves a second.

“We see the same thing in the professions,” says Susskind. “If you ask a doctor how he makes a diagnosis or a lawyer how he predicts the outcome of a case they can’t really describe how they do it. The fallacy is to think the only way to build a machine that is capable of outperforming a human at a given task is to try and understand and replicate the way a human being does that task. These new technologies solve these problems in a very different way, often relying on brute force processing power and a massive data storage capacity.”

One example is a system called Lex Machina, which predicts the outcome of patent disputes more accurately than the best patent lawyers. It doesn’t know and understand the law the way a human lawyer does, but it boasts a database of 800,000 past cases which it trawls through to make its predictions.

Even tasks that you’d assume require that most human of traits, empathy, can be automated. In 2011 the Vatican issued the first digital Imprimatur, the special license the Catholic Church issues for religious texts, for an app called Confession that has tools for tracking sin and drop-down boxes for assigning contrition.

If you had this vision of being a traditional doctor, lawyer, journalist or accountant like the previous generation you’ll be disappointed and frustrated.

Given his insight into the upheaval technology promises to bring to even the most unexpected professions in the near future, would there be any career path Susskind would advise young people not to get into?

“My advice would be if you had this vision of being a traditional doctor, lawyer, journalist or accountant like the previous generation you’ll be disappointed and frustrated,” he says. “But if you go into the professions with the mindset ‘I want to solve problems’ independent of how it was done in the past, that future is very promising.

“The professions are responsible for some of the most important functions in society. They keep us in good health, they educate us, they give us advice on running our business, and they give us information about the world. At the same time they are creaking; they are struggling to provide affordable access to their expertise. So for young people, there are huge and exciting opportunities to use these new technologies to solve that problem and make expertise far more widely available.”

So in the medium term Susskind believes that while there will be a decline in traditional professional roles, new types of roles will arise, after careful consideration about just what these new roles might be. But in the much longer term, he warns that there won’t be enough demand to sustain armies of professionals in employment.

A human in a digital world

Automation technology won’t just change the workplace; it will change our role within it. On the positive side, it will unlock access to knowledge and skills once set aside for only the privileged few.

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Daryl Plummer, Gartner vice president and chief of research, says his company’s Top Predictions “…begin to separate us from the mere notion of technology adoption and draw us more deeply into issues surrounding what it means to be human in a digital world.”

And that means every job you assume can only be done by humans may very well have had a robot hand involved. For example, Gartner predicts that by 2018, 20% of business reports will be authored by automated composition tools that turn data-based and analytical information into natural language writing. So the next time you read an article like this, it could well have been penned by a robot.

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