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Automation affecting employment

Otto Uber

Driverless vehicles

Automation in the workplace

Thursday 7 September, 2017

The end of the professions as we know them: are you ready? Current estimates suggest that automation will cause unemployment for 47% of all current jobs over the next 25 years (Cornell University). But will robots really take over all the jobs?

The Luddite protests during the 1800s are one of the oldest and most infamous examples of workers opposing technology, given the consequences of mechanisation in widening wealth inequality – making the rich even richer. Yet at the same time, technological advances solved some of the 19th century’s greatest problems, for instance the introduction of cars averted the Great Horse Manure crisis predicted by contemporaries.

At present, companies are experimenting with automation technology, for instance Uber’s driverless program that could eventually replace 1.7 million truck drivers in the US. Conversely, there are cases of automation creating jobs too such as the e-commerce merchant Otto hiring more workers in order to track its consumer algorithms.

So what is the reality of Artificial Intelligence (AI)?  Are robots really capable of learning?  And will they learn using moral standards that we take for granted? Not all think that AI will be beneficial with Professor Stephen Hawking quoted as saying ‘the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.’

There is an increasing need to prepare ourselves for the future impact of automation, AI and robots. More and more offices are becoming hybrid with a mixture of third party, public, organisation, personal, and other space (e.g. cafe’s etc.) requiring activity based working areas.  Over the last 150 years work has evolved from concentration, collectivism (moving people to work), to digitisation, channel shift, dematerialisation and new platforms for work.

All sorts of new technologies are evolving from intelligent surfaces through to holopresence, robots and AI.  Robots will be doing tasks that are repetitive yet need precision, that are analytical yet will predict and interpret our response. Most significantly, they can withstand areas too toxic or dangerous for humans, meaning previously inaccessible resources can be acquired. Agri-robotics, remote mining, GPS control, yield mapping, and sensitive operations in hospitals are examples of robotics already enhancing human capabilities.  But where will it all end?  Will there still be work for us?

The current position of AI in the workplace will almost certainly differ from how AI will affect the workforce and social interaction in years to come. The thought that ‘AI is blind to the color of your collar’ (Stanford University) suggests that all kinds of jobs are at risk of becoming redundant, from accounting to management to healthcare. As new technological advances are made, entire industries could be forced to adapt in order to remain competitive.

However, as monotonous tasks are eliminated the new jobs created are likely to require greater creativity and thinking, which will be more stimulating and enjoyable. It is also predicted that workers will benefit from increased leisure time; a trend that has correlated the growth of technology and mechanisation in the workplace for the past two centuries. Could it be that automation is just the next step in improving the productivity of labour?

What is AI? How robots will function and what will their moral standards be?  How secure will their systems be and how resistant will they be to hacking?  Are AI systems actually helping? These are the questions that industries are asking right now. Ultimately, we need to know if it is easier or more difficult to resolve workplace problems and issues with AI systems.

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