Technology, innovation and shifting cultural norms have always fuelled changes in workforce composition and the jobs we have done.

In the past many jobs have disappeared and others have risen to replace them as the result of the changes. The question of whether automation will change our jobs is not a new question that even needs answering.

Automation has been changing the way we work for centuries.

In the 1700’s artisan skills were an indispensable commodity. The workforce were taught in specific disciplines that required specific skills and dedicated training. This approach would be shaken up towards the end of the century with the introduction of the first completely automated industrial process. In 1785 Oliver Evans introduced a completely automatic flour mill.

Although many would not have foreseen it at the time, a cycle of continuous change directed by work automation had begun.

The Cycle of Change

Many of the artisanal skills were replaced by factory work when the Industrial Revolution took hold in the 19th Century. And by the 1980s, many of the Industrial Revolution-era assembly-line jobs had themselves fallen into the ‘hands of machines’.

Since then industrial processes have seen further and further increases in automation, with today’s robots undertaking incredibly sophisticated tasks and procedures. But automation has by no means been solely employed in industry process.

Service work automation is sharply increasing. Services tasks we never believed could be automated are being undertaken by machines.

When I log into my online bank account, I now get a chat box where where I can ask for help. But here I am not talking to customer service representative. I am talking to a chatbot.

Banks have announced that they are trialling AI chatbots to respond to these queries – RBS, for instance, will deploy a virtual assistant called Luvo to deal with day-to-day customer problems from lost or stolen bank cards to forgotten pin numbers.

But are these chatbots as good as a human representative?

“Machines are already undertaking tasks which were unthinkable – if not unimaginable – a decade ago” – Andy Haldane, Chief Economist @ Bank of England.

Well it’s an interesting argument. Yes, it may seem strange to be asking a machine about your bank account, but these chatbots can instantly access the entirety of the existing customer service database to pull up an answer, and learn from previous enquiries. Which means your questions have instant, personalised answers based on your previously logged dealings with the bank and your account.

You may have seen recently that Facebook launched chatbots for their messenger service

These Facebook chatbots are allowing businesses to sell products, or services through a chatbot alone. These chatbots can can purchase items, deliver gifts on your behalf, book restaurants, and make travel arrangements. But the differential here is that it is powered by a team of AI and real people.

With this approach the bots are trained by humans and they are able to manage all the simple enquiries, while a human takes on the more complex queries.

For many, this would seem to be the right balance.

So how will we find the balance in the automated solutions that we bring into our work lives? What is the human challenge of work automation?

Work automation demonstrated with a self driving truck on the road in the USA

Look no hands! A self driving truck on the road while the driver watches and does tasks other than the driving.

The Human Challenge of Work Automation

Compared to the past, what is different about today is the pace at which market transformations can and are taking place.

Research from McKinsey & Co. suggests that 45% of current work activities could be automated using today’s technology. There’s even a tool where you can find out the likelihood that your job could be automated within the next two decades.

Andrew Zolli paints a picture of the future where “Almost anything that can be done by machine, WILL be done by machine”. Does this paint a bleak future where we will see a split in society where many people are out of work and replaced by machines?

Likely not.

The challenge for us is not to be automated, but to augment ourselves.[Tweet this]

Many of us are already using automated elements in our daily work. They can be incredibly simple, like email filters, or more complex, such as entirely automated sales processes. All of which are not designed to replace us, but are there to help us work better.

These tools also save us our most valuable commodity – time.

Doing things quickly is less important than doing the right things. I bet in the last few days you have wished for more time to focus on the projects you really want to work on because you believe they will make a big difference to you, the business you work for, or your customers. Automation of our work processes will free us from many of the routine tasks that dominate our schedule, so we can focus on more creative or more complex elements of our jobs.

Robots can’t bring things like imagination, empathy or curiosity to a task or a challenge. This is where we are able to bring so much more to our work than a machine.

In industries that already have heavy automation, where in time it may be possible to remove us entirely from the process altogether, it may also never be the case that this happens, or that it is something we should fear.

Employing machines to do everything is not only always cost effective. It can cost a huge order of magnitude more to employ, run and maintain a robotic system that a human could do easily. Take the recent example of three restaurants in China sacking their robot workers because they were incompetent and kept break the kitchen.

History should also demonstrate to us that whenever one set of jobs have disappeared, others have risen to replace them as the result of the changes. Overall, these changes have brought about more positive than negative results for society. We are just as busy now as we have always been, just the nature of our bustle has changed.

While machines may be better than us at certain tasks, they’re still going to have to live up to their employers’ expectations just like the rest of us.

Unlocking Creativity

How will we create more value in the future through work automation? Check out the video below to hear how many people predict what the future of our work lives will look like.