Automation – job threat or job security?

Since the industrial revolution in the mid 18th century, automation technology has been deployed to do the work of humans.

 

As mechanisation and automation technologies have been developed, they have changed the landscape of employment.  Jobs have steadily moved from agriculture to manufacturing and more latterly, to services (also known as primary, secondary and tertiary sectors).  In doing so, far from being a threat to our livelihoods, automation has enabled large scale job-creation and diversification.

 

If robots are performing tasks that humans would otherwise do, it’s reasonable to ask therefore – are the digital bots of today threatening my job?

 

Let’s look to the lessons of history to answer that.

 

The beginning of automation

The 1st industrial revolution was the age of steam.  The mechanisation of agriculture and manufacturing was the order of the day.  Automation back then came in the form of machines like the Power Loom or the Spinning Jenny which, at the peak of its development, could perform the role of up to 120 factory workers.

 

Whilst this might appear to be detrimental to the labor market, it made manufactured goods cheaper and therefore in greater demand, and this in turn created a requirement for more factory workers – albeit in different roles.  It also (pun intended) fueled the need to deliver vast quantities of energy and raw materials to feed the factories, as well as food and clothing to provide for an ever growing and longer living, healthier population.

 

Production of coal, water, iron, wool, cotton, and the transportation of such goods via railways, canals and shipping, grew on a massive scale and accordingly these industries employed more and more people.

 

It also spawned a golden age of invention.  The number of new patents registered in the UK and Ireland grew from 8 in 1750 to 793 in 1850.  Out of interest, in 2020 this number was 3.2 million 1.

 

As the demand for manufactured goods grew massively, so was spawned a huge wave of invention and thus, an even greater need for manufacturing workers – a repeating cycle to this day.

 

So, far from having a negative effect on the labor market, the industrial revolution created employment, and diversity of employment, on a huge scale.  Not that it was in any way a golden age for the workers.  The advent of the philanthropist factory owners like Cadbury, Lever and Salt2, and the need for new legislation to protect workers, were a response to how tough conditions had become.

 

The growth and value of the cotton export trade from the southern states of America, and the dependence on slave labor to meet this demand, was one of the key causes of the American Civil War.  An automation invention, the Cotton Gin, made cotton a far more profitable and scalable crop and thus fuelled the need for slaves3.  Lest we forget.

 

Automation 2.0

Fast forward to the mid 19th century, and we enter the 2nd industrial revolution.  A proliferation of inventions based around new technologies such as the automobile, chemicals, rubber, electricity, and the telegraph, prompt another wave of industrialisation.  Electricity begins to take over from steam, and the next notable automation technology is developed – the production line.  It’s a huge leap forward in the volume of production and once again, far from being a threat to jobs, it makes manufactured goods more affordable and therefore increases demand and accordingly a huge surge in employment to meet that demand.

 

The Rise of the Computer

The 3rd industrial revolution in the latter half of the 20th century was the computer age.  Electronics, telecommunications, microchips and now robots performing more complex tasks, using logic, and making decisions.  It was a challenging era of change for assembly workers, and yet saw tremendous job growth in new fields of discovery such as life sciences, information technology, food and household products, and increasingly, professional services.

 

The Internet Age

This brings us to current times, in what some call the 4th industrial revolution, 4IR, or Industry 4.0.  It is the digital revolution, the internet age.  In the western world, the service economy has now significantly overtaken the manufacturing economy as a contributor to GDP 4.  We have seen an explosion in job creation as new models for customer sales, service and process integration are created to respond to the ever more complicated demands from consumers, customers and trading partners.  “as a Service” is a defining phrase of our time.

 

This growth in complexity must be reflected in enterprise software.  ERP, HCM, SCM and CRM systems must be able to deliver these new business processes to enable modern business models.  This leads to ever more complex implementations and, necessity being the mother of invention, innovation in the ways to handle this complexity.

 

Today’s robots are reflecting the technological innovations of the time.  They have diversified to become digital and available as a service, automating previously untouched processes in the tertiary sector.  We now call them “bots” – partly to reflect modern language’s desire to abbreviate, but also perhaps to differentiate from the shiny, tangible, mechanical robots of the factory floor or in sci-fi movies.  Robotic Process Automation, or RPA, is the automation technology of our age, and the opportunities it presents to businesses and individuals are considerable.

 

As an automation software provider, we at Rapid4Cloud are seldom met with a shrug of the shoulders when we present our solution.  We find we are either greeted with considerable enthusiasm, or with pitchforks!  There is still a perceived threat to our livelihoods from automation, but I hope I’ve shown that the lessons of the past should reassure us that we need not worry.  One of my business partners made a great point to me recently on this topic.  He pointed out how ironic it was that IT professionals were resistant to embracing new technology.

 

It is often mistakenly thought that the Luddites of the 18th century were anti-machine, anti-automation.  In fact they were machine users, artisans who took pride in the quality of their work and were protesting at factory owners who put profits ahead of product quality and working conditions5.

 

Regardless of the age we are in, the fears are real to those who feel them.  I hope this blog can offer at least a little comfort that they need not worry.

 

By Philip Martin

Founder & CEO

 

  1. https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/number-of-patents-through-the-industrial-revolution
  2. https://www.ft.com/content/3a0856c6-e1d5-11dd-afa0-0000779fd2ac
  3. https://constitutioncenter.org/blog/the-cotton-gin-a-game-changing-social-and-economic-invention
  4. https://blogs.worldbank.org/voices/your-service-developing-economies-bet-service-industries-growth
  5. https://www.wcml.org.uk/our-collections/protest-politics-and-campaigning-for-change/luddites/