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The roots of modern day automation can be traced back to the 18th century, with the development of the steam engine representing a key milestone in the industrial revolution. The trend has continued to gather pace, with other breakthroughs such as Henry Ford’s introduction of the assembly line and the development of increasingly advanced computer systems.
Continuing to the present day, we see the widening use of robotic technologies, with AI, machine learning and the Internet of Things (IoT) allowing for the astonishingly rapid and precise completion of tasks. We’ll explore the increasing adoption of such technologies, considering the likely impact on market sectors, jobs, and the wider international economy here.
Given the range of widely recognised benefits, it’s hardly surprising that an increasing number of businesses are committed to automation. Indeed, 80% of businesses have been reported as speeding up process automation, with the number of automated jobs increasing by 14% year on year. Such technologies are giving human workers more freedom to focus on value-adding activities, with safety standards and productivity levels also being raised.
As with other highly impactful changes, the introduction of automated technologies has caused some concern. A PwC report has suggested that one third of all jobs could be at risk of being automated by 2030, with those who have low educational attainment expected to be most affected. However, fear raised by widening technological adoption is nothing new, as highlighted by protests against the use of steam-powered machines during the industrial revolution.
As has always been the case, the rise of technology will bring great opportunities both for employers and employees. It’s widely expected that automation will cause more jobs to be created than lost over the coming years. As productivity is raised so the pricing of goods and services will be reduced. This will give rise to more consumer demand and more jobs.
As the leading trade association for automation suppliers and technology end users, Automate UK is committed to busting the “robots take jobs” myth. In actual fact, our research has shown that such technologies can at least partly make up for the shortage of skilled and unskilled workers. This is clearest across such sectors as manufacturing and agriculture, where there is a great amount of competition for a small pot of available talent.
As emphasised by Automate UK’s Manifesto for Automation, there needs to be a general acceptance that “robots fill vacant jobs”. This applies in particular to jobs that fall under the dull, dirty and dangerous category. In such cases the integration of robots may allow human workers the opportunity to focus on more fulfilling and rewarding jobs.
Machinery Update has covered numerous examples of companies and countries to have realised the benefits of integrating automation. The November/December 2023 edition featured an article about Schneider Electric’s introduction of the Lexium cobot for improved productivity and plant safety. Working closely with humans, the cobot has brought benefits in terms of safety and space optimisation. Savings of time, space, and money have also been realised in KNUESS Guegli’s adoption of a custom-designed packaging system from Rockwell Automation.
Continuing the theme of job market dynamics, The World Economic Forum has predicted that technology will create at least 12 million more jobs than it destroys by 2025. While robots can take on a great variety of tasks, there’s often a need for manual control and monitoring. And despite technological developments, human cognitive abilities are far more advanced in some areas. There’s also the potential for people with specialist technological knowledge and skills to enjoy higher earnings.
Automation is influencing freelancing and gig-based work too, with some companies realising the opportunity to automate tasks that might otherwise have been outsourced. This has been seen across the creative industries, with the development of text and image-generating technologies. Some freelancers have expanded their range of services to include AI based content creation. The automation of routine activities has also provided human workers with the opportunity to better use their advanced knowledge and skills.
It’s a similar case across other sectors, with employers being encouraged to invest in education and upskilling so that workers are prepared for jobs in automated industries.
Of course there are important economic questions and challenges that will have to be met as the use of automated challenges continues to increase. There’s a fear that the replacement of workers in menial roles could result in greater income inequality. The digital divide could also widen, with well qualified employees given more opportunities to learn about and augment their work with automation. The government has a key role to play in bridging this divide, regulating automation, ensuring fair labour practices and fostering economic activity.
There’s bound to be some international variation in the adoption and economic impacts of automated technologies. As an example, 20%-25% of jobs in East Asian and Nordic countries are expected to be automated by the early 2030s. This rises to 40% for Eastern European countries, where high levels of industrial production can be automated with relative ease. The success of such automation will be at least partly dependent on the setting of safeguards and introduction of digital opportunities for workers.
There are a number of economic trends which are bound to be influenced and accelerated by the widening adoption of automation. Over the coming years we can expect to see increasing use of technologies such as artificial intelligence, blockchain and advanced robotics. While such technologies can be used separately, their convergence is likely to bring the greatest benefit. Rather than worrying about their replacement, workers should also be committed to realising the possibilities of automation.
Governments and businesses must be prepared to make assurances and build towards a future where humans and robots work together. This will include the setting of universal basic income and introduction of other innovative economic models. Such measures should incentivise innovation, economic growth and sustainable development. There should be a smooth transition into an automated economy, with people of all educational and income levels seeing the benefits.
Aiming to drive industry progress and support the growth of our members, Automate UK encourages active participation in shaping the economy of the future. We encourage you to share your thoughts on the implications of automation and have your say on the latest policies shaping the automated economy.
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