I will bet there isn’t a person on the planet that hasn’t heard digitization and automation will displace some workers and that it will also create many new jobs. Everyone has an opinion on this topic. For this column let’s change the narrative just a bit and look at it from a few different perspectives.
Why exactly would we talk about a slowdown? Usually, we all talk about how we can leverage technology to speed everything up. We talk about how we can remove barriers to entry and get rid of business hurdles to speed up innovation and adoption, then why are some industry leaders pushing for us to slow down the pace of technology?
Before delving deeper, some numbers might put this into perspective. An automation in the workplace report from Smartsheet suggests 60% of information workers think automation will lead to higher levels of unemployment. This is indicative of the larger public attitude right now regarding robots and automation.
With that in mind, it’s no wonder that so many are asking: to what extent will these emerging technologies push workers out of their jobs? Will these workers have the skills they need to be “reskilled” or retrained? If they need to be reskilled, who will fund these reskilling programs—employers? The government? Workers themselves?
So how then can automation actually help organizations slow down? Automation can reduce wasted time; it can recover lost hours of productivity; and it can make processes more efficient. In addition, it also gives human workers the chance to spend more time doing work that can’t be automated—those tasks that require human creativity and problem solving, for instance.
In fact, 78% of Smartsheet’s respondents say automation will allow them to focus on more interesting and rewarding aspects of their jobs. Another 72% say automating redundant tasks will give them the chance to benefit their companies by performing higher-value work.
This isn’t to say that people aren’t also afraid of unemployment and losing value to their companies at the hands of automation, but this just isn’t the whole picture. Human brainpower will still have a whole lot to offer in the age of automation. Some people claim to perform better under pressure, but wouldn’t we all agree that we could be more creative, more collaborative, and more thorough if we had more time?
If automation took care of society’s more menial tasks, it would certainly free up a good chunk of human ingenuity. The entire workforce isn’t prepared or willing to contribute on this sort of higher plane, but for those who are just imagine for a minute what we are capable of achieving, solving, or doing at any given moment.
As a society, perhaps that’s where we need to start. We need to begin to use our brain cells to come up with plans for helping people transition into these new roles as automation starts to take a bigger hold. One solution that’s been suggested is a “robot tax.” Mady Delvaux-Stehres, a member of the European Parliament, brought this up a couple of years ago in a draft report to the Parliament.
Delvaux-Stehres points out in her report that the development of robotics and AI (artificial intelligence) may result in job displacement. She raised concerns about not only the future of employment, but also the viability of social security systems.
Delvaux-Stehres and others are simply thinking ahead and foreseeing the need for some change. If we stick to how things are done now, there’s the potential for increased inequality in the distribution of wealth and influence.
Some big names have come out in favor of a robot tax to fund human services and balance out income inequalities.
Bill Gates, cofounder of Microsoft, for one, seems to think that if we leverage machines to do work that humans used to do, thereby freeing humans up to do work in industries like education, it seems fair to tax companies that are using automation in order to fund human workers in other jobs.
Taxing automation may seem a little counterintuitive if we’re always pushing for more innovation, more adoption, and so on, because what a “robot tax” could essentially do is slow innovation down.
Robert Shiller, the economist, is another person who has weighed in on this debate. Shiller, too, urges us not to rule out the idea of an automation tax, at least in some form or another. He says modest robot taxes during the transition to “a different world of work” could temporarily slow down the transition and give us all time to adjust.
Adjustment allows for the transition for companies to come in the form of retraining and reskilling workers who are being displaced.
Whether or not a tax is the right idea, the point is that we need to be giving thought to the transition time as people are being displaced. Simply, no idea is bad, and all ideas should be considered. Eventually the most obvious will appear. Without question, automation has its place and it’s most likely going to force us to change the way we tax in the years to come.
Taxing automation could be part of an overarching plan to manage the ripple effects of an automation age—and we can only guess what some of these consequences are going to be at this point. Taking a good hard look at innovation and putting the brakes on it and helping everyone take a long deep breath might not be a bad thing either. It certainly isn’t the worst thing in the world.
I have never advocated for technology for technology’s sake or for progress for progress’s sake. We need to be solving real business problems with the IoT.
And we also need to solve—and not contribute to—problems that humans face every day. All of this requires a steady and consistent hand.
The pace of change we have all been keeping certainly does not allow for anyone to truly take in all that they have created and just sit back and soak it all in, at least not for too long, because some other great new innovator is already thinking and developing the next best thing or should I say, is already announcing the next new GoFundMe page, M&A, or big investor.
In this day and age of megamergers no one is on an island and you can’t rest on your laurels. So slowing down innovation doesn’t sound so bad now—does it? And all this time you thought Bill Gates was ready for retirement.
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