Automation in the Workplace: Can People Keep Up with Machines?

By Patrick Larsen

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Quote from Janna Anderson

You hear it more and more all the time – science fiction is quickly becoming science fact.  A world filled with robots to do all of our work for us while we lie back and relax, not a care in the world, is a dream of the 20th century.  It looks like it may well be a reality of the 21st.

Lots of people are asking, however, if this way of life is really what we want.  After all, humans have been working with some structure of employment for millennia at this point.  So much of an economy’s worth is based upon the ability it has to regularly employ citizens.

Now, experts at McKinley, a global management consulting company, have calculated that as many as 1.2 billion employees could be affected by automation.

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Janna Anderson, educator and researcher

Now, Janna Anderson, professor at Elon University and researcher for Pew, says that “every job will be affected by artificial intelligence.”

Obviously, this has serious implications for human employment moving forward which will be difficult to grapple with.  People will increasingly have to think about what skills they need to compete in this marketplace.

According to Anderson’s report for Pew, about 70% of 1,408 respondents think that “new educational and training programs” will emerge and be successful.  One of these experts included Justin Reich, executive director at MIT Teaching Systems Lab.

“Educators have always found new ways of training the next generation of students for the jobs of the future, and this generation will be no different,” Reich said.

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“You have to be a jack of all trades,” Anderson said.  “You need to understand a wide variety of things and be curious and excited about lifelong learning.”

Some Elon community members expressed their views on the issue as well.

“You need empathy, sympathy,” René Jackson, Associate Director of Career Services for Grad School Programs said.  “You need things that a computer cannot provide.”

Jackson stressed that she particularly meant one on one jobs such as doctors, designers and other jobs that we think of as requiring understanding between two parties.  Even so, she seemed uncertain that even these jobs would remain safely with human workers.  Jackson also sees a possibility in working to maintain the machines.

“Jobs like manufacturing I think increasingly continue to be assigned to computers, but somebody’s got to run them.”

She ultimately expressed concern at the increasing level of automation, citing uncertainty that enough jobs could be found.

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Hannah Greenwood

Hannah Greenwood, Elon first year seems to understand where the workplace is headed.

“Technology in the workforce is inevitable,” Greenwood said.  “There’s a growing knowledge bas about how robots are going to come into play.”

As for how to deal with this as people, however, she seems less sure.  She does think that adding new classes relating to finding work in a changing field of employment is important.

Craig Morehead, English professor at Elon, is very interested in this topic.

“I know what I’ve read and researched: basically, that automation is one of the most pressing issues facing our workforce labor for the foreseeable future. I believe that not enough people are doing the long term thinking and planning that this issue requires,” Morehead said.

He tells his students that flexibility is the most important thing moving forward in order to avoid being replaced and that education reforms need to be carried out.

“It will take all sides involved to rethink the kinds of interdisciplinary models of education that we can emphasize that will better prepare students for the conditions of the future labor market.”

As a professor, Morehead is especially concerned because “some of my fellow educators and my students are not as aware of this issue as they should be.”

Ultimately, there will be tons of changes throughout the rest of the 21st century.  Will we be living like Jetsons or are we getting too big for britches?  Only time – and the hard work of humans and machines – will tell.

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