Unplanned Consequences of Automation

One of the worries about automation is that people will be replaced by robots. Maybe this is the wrong worry, though. Maybe the most likely problem is that people will be treated like robots.

Dirty, dull, and dangerous

Automation is intended to take on the jobs that are dirty, dull, and dangerous. Machines are good at doing repetitive tasks consistently. Humans? Not so much. Yet bots are taking over jobs like hiring, writing, and creating art. They’re not very good at these things.

Humans are good at those things. But they are left to do less creative tasks.

“On any given day,” Chetan Dube wrote at Forbes, “we exercise less than 30% of our creative brain; the rest is held hostage to mundane chores.”

Sometimes humans are given the parts of tasks that robots can’t do well. Robotic fry cooks can flip burgers, but they can’t put lettuce and tomato on a burger. So human beings add lettuce and tomato. Instead of being given tasks that showcase their intellectual or emotional capabilities, they are used for their greater manual dexterity.

They are expected to adapt to the robot’s workflow, because they can.

On many factory lines, humans end up in this type of task, serving robots by moving things in ways robots cannot or arranging things so that robot sensors can identify them. The humans end up behaving like handmaidens for the robots, which are given as much of the work as possible.

Naturally, the people have to work within the parameters of the robots’ actions. The space, the timing, and the processes must be arranged to suit the needs of the robots, not the humans.

As strikers said at an Amazon facility in the UK, ‘To [their bosses], we are like robots. The things that make us human are ground out of you.”

Not the ideal

Ideally, automation speeds up and improves routine tasks and frees human workers to do the tasks that require creativity, decision making, and social skills.

In fact, management is increasingly being automated in the form of software that oversees human workers, analyzes their actions, and pushes them to accomplish more in less time. The practice of making human workers perform tasks at speeds based on how fast their machines can go has been found to lead to higher levels of injury and burn out.

The future of automation is full of uncertainty. Thus can be an exciting time as we push the limits of what we’ve been able to do with robots so far…or a bad time to be a human worker.

The decisions we make now will determine which road we end up on.

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