Will robots always be one step ahead?

Look back just five years, and think about how technology has changed the way we live.

A clear and common thread uniting these seemingly disparate changes is how, with each stride, tech is making our lives easier. We have become more effective communicators with apps and emails; more efficient workers with digital tools; and now, with now the help of automation (or “robots”) to support us in repetitive tasks, we have the opportunity to become more thoughtful in our jobs.

But along with these changes, comes the worry that automation will wipe out humans from workplace. As it always is, the truth is a little bit more nuanced than that.

Automation Will Spur Us to Change, Not Make Us Useless

It’s true: new technologies are encroaching on the work (and skills) that used to belong to humans. But isn’t that what they are is supposed to do? Carry out more and more of the tasks that can be automated, so as to complement and elevate what we, as humans, can focus our attention on. Similar to what happened in the past 3 industrial revolutions?

Putting this into perspective, some estimate that by 2030, at least 20% of work activities in Singapore might be displaced by automation. But this also means that entire industries are being revolutionized to become more efficient, alongside new roles being created — 87% more, to be precise.

Now that we know that this change is inevitable and necessary for future growth, comes the uncomfortable question about how we, as a people, should stay ahead of the curve. This is clearly a big enough question, considering the 76% of Singaporeans who are worried about the rapid change in the skills they need to succeed. It wasn’t too long ago, after all, that adept skills in MS Office was enough to get you a job.

Staying ahead needs a concerted effort — from the individual to have a mindset that accepts change, the government support that’s required for citizens to proactively look for new skills, as well as companies and academia for training and reskilling the current and future generations. But the rewards are huge for one and all.

How Will Automation Benefit Us?

There is no doubt that newer technologies — including automation, AI and machine learning — will continue to change the way we live and work. For instance, smart cities — including Jakarta and Bangkok, are finding ways to use it to solve traffic congestion and issues with public services, as well as Singapore and Seoul, that are piloting ground-up programs that use it to redefine city services and infrastructure.

Then, there’s massive productivity gains. When manufacturing processes are digitized, companies in Singapore have already seen up to 20% surge in productivity. It can also help and support humans where you would least expect it — for example, caregivers, with Singapore piloting smart home designs that include monitoring systems which can track the activity patterns of elderly residents.

Moving into the office, jobs like manual data entry can now be a job for the bots. For marketing teams, emails can also be automated — with marketers now able to set the parameters of their campaign accordingly and set it to run indefinitely whenever a new contact is added to the software.

Technology also enables mass customization, which significantly increases the relevance of marketing messages to consumers. Automating these tasks frees up workers’ time to work on more analytical tasks such as drawing insights from data, or deciding if your marketing strategy needs a rehaul.

As consumers, these productivity gains have their effects to us, too. Self-check outs or mobile pay is streamlining the process of paying for groceries at your store. Your bank has integrated automation into its processes to detect fraud faster than any human could.

Automating processes not only saves time and frees up limited resources to be diverted to more valuable tasks, but it also allows the already-digitized information to be further leveraged into actionable insights. Data is the new currency for experiences, engagement and impact for any organization. In the HR industry, for example, not only can the consolidation of resumes now be automated, but professionals can use AI to make sense of the information that they are gathering to see who is most appropriate for the job at hand – thereby, being able to reach a much larger pool of candidates.

Automation is already playing a significant role in many industries, and there is more to come. But it does not necessarily mean that they are always one step ahead. Instead of focusing on how they are going to replace us, why not think about how they can complement or even augment human intelligence? There are many examples of this – from diagnosing and suggesting treatments for patients to detecting and preventing cyberattacks, the possibilities are endless, and the onus is on us to advance ourselves in order to take advantage of the technology. 

Workers need to take the proactive step to reskill themselves, with support from the public, private and education sectors. While this can seem complex at first glance, it is not a step you can afford to miss in 2020. Alvin Toffler sums it up well – The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.