How Can We Harness ‘Disruption’ to Avoid Automation’s Onslaught?

John Spoehr considers the double-edged sword of technological disruption and how we can use new technology to protect workers.

Some terms become all pervasive in public discourse. They infect the language and occasionally come to be emblematic of the times. During the 1980s and 1990s, one such term was globalisation. It remains ubiquitous to this day. New linguistic colonisers are with us, profoundly shaping debates, creating a sense of some inevitable, unstoppable state of affairs. One of the latest colonisers is ‘disruption’ – the idea that particular technologies and business models fundamentally challenge the way we design, produce and consume goods and services – the way we live and work. While early adopters will be rewarded as the flag bearers of the industries of the future, laggards will be left behind, leaving jobs losses in their wake. Moreover, routine tasks are said to be highly vulnerable to automation with some estimates suggesting that more than 40 percent of all jobs are vulnerable to high levels of automation. Don’t despair. Just because a task can be automated doesn’t necessarily mean it will be. The costs and desirability of automation loom large in any decision to automate. Automation abounds, however, in our daily lives. While fears about disruption and automation are not without foundation, they tend to be technologically deterministic – overestimating both the pace of change and the relative advantages of automated solutions. There is little doubt that the current wave of technological innovations is truly transformative, particularly when paired with digital technologies. Nanotechnology, bio-technology, photonics, 3D printing, artificial intelligence and simulation are among a suite of revolutionary technologies transforming our industries and workplaces. The new industrial revolution this heralds is replete with opportunities, unique opportunities to build a more diversified, knowledge-based economy capable of generating rewarding, well-paid and secure jobs.

distruption-automation-robots-adelaide-reviewAutomation has come a long way in recent years, touching most aspects of our lives

The problem with the current debate on technological disruption is that it is too stooped in technological determinism, leading to unrealistic conclusions about the uptake and diffusion of new technologies. The capacity of our companies and our public organisations to absorb and apply new technologies is constrained by lack of awareness, knowledge, leadership and resources. To accelerate the update and diffusion of technology in ways that take account of the human dimensions of technology we need to pay much greater attention to workplace engagement in technological change processes. While automation might prove to be a compelling proposition, wider questions must be asked about how technology best serves us in the quest to build sustainable industries and jobs in the face of enormous competitive pressures. Our competitive advantage will be a combination of humanisation and automation, recognising the central role that meaningful and rewarding work plays in our lives and the essence of what it means to be human – the deep fulfillment that comes from mutual support, care and recognition. Artificial intelligence is seeking to mimic this but it is no substitute for the real thing. To realise the benefits of technological disruption, shape it and harness it, we need to abandon the largely reactive posture we have adopted in Australia. We need to develop a much deeper understanding of disruptive technologies and their potential applications. We are global laggards in this respect and must urgently create new institutions where scientists and social scientists work more closely together on common problems. Social scientists must help to fill the gap that exists in our critical understanding of the human dimensions and implications of technology. John Spoehr is Professor and Director of the Australian Industrial Transformation Institute at Flinders University in South Australia @JohnSpoehr

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