Rise of the machines

by Tiffany Paczek
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Automation has long been common practice, but will it make FMs and their employees redundant? TIFFANY PACZEK explores the effect of modern technology on jobs and the facility management industry.

Technology has been a part of our lives, and a major part at that, for a long time. It’s integrated itself into every minute of our every day with ease and, for the most part, we barely notice it anymore.

In the early years of the technological revolution, people thought the same way about moving pictures as many of us feel today about robots and the automation revolution. That is to say, when they witnessed the very first recorded footage of a train steaming towards the camera, they panicked and fled, believing a real train was barrelling towards them. This footage, shot by the Lumière Brothers in 1896 and entitled Arrival of a Train, is one of the most enduring recollections from the earliest years of cinema, and it took some time for people to get used to the idea that film is a captured image of a real scene, a representation rather than reality.

The same can be said for the technology-centred dilemma in which we find ourselves today. Of course, it’s not movies that we have to learn to become accustomed to, but rather something a little more in the style of Skynet from the Terminator movie franchise.

While technology always has been part of our lives, it seems to be progressing at an ever-increasing rate; indeed one could say that it’s barrelling ahead with the speed of a train. Every time we blink, a new technology or innovation has been released, and just as the general population wraps its head around it, three more emerge for us to get used to.

Technology’s rapid progression has led to the development and utilisation of automation in many different fields and across many different industries, which, in turn, has sparked concerns the world over that humans will be made redundant in a staggering number of jobs. Are robots taking our careers? Are we being replaced by machines? Is Skynet really coming for us? (We do still have Arnold with us, so fear not on that front.) It’s no secret that automation is working its way ever increasingly into our lives. Self-serve checkouts, self-driving cars, machine-read X-rays and automated customer service responses – these are powerful manifestations of automation and are fast becoming commonplace.

There can be no denying that these technologies increase productivity, remove the risk of human error and improve our lives. They are effectively substituting for work traditionally performed by humans – but is it at the cost of livelihoods?

Many fearful workers say yes, and worry for their jobs. And while the world of careers is changing, industry specialists say this doesn’t necessarily mean we are headed for the next Great Depression (or Terminator-style apocalypse). Automation may take certain jobs, but it will also create others – jobs that don’t yet exist.

JOBS AND TECHNOLOGY

As robotics and machine learning continue to become more sophisticated and enhance the economies worldwide, Australia included, artificial intelligence (AI) is progressing into the finance, transportation, defence, facility management and energy management arenas. The Internet of Things (IoT) is facilitated by high-speed networks and remote sensors to connect people, buildings and businesses – and is both improving lives and efficiency, while creating widespread fear that countless previously employed workers will be thrown into unemployment.

This is not a baseless fear, either, or restricted to laymen or the labour force whose jobs are most as risk. A Pew Research Center study asked nearly 2000 experts about the economic impact of these emerging technologies, and the results revealed that almost half (48 percent) “envision a future in which robots and digital agents have displaced significant numbers of both blue- and white-collar workers” – with many expressing concern that this will lead to “vast increases in income inequality, masses of people who are effectively unemployable, and breakdowns in the social order”.

Oxford University researchers Carl Frey and Michael Osborne studied 702 occupational groupings and declared that 47 percent of US workers faced a “high probability” of seeing their jobs automated over the coming two decades. McKinsey Global Institute’s latest report, ‘Jobs lost, jobs gained: workforce transitions in a time of automation’, assesses the number and the types of jobs that may be created under different scenarios up until 2030 and compares them to the jobs that could be lost to automation. The results of the report reveal what McKinsey calls “a rich mosaic of potential shifts in occupations in the years ahead, with important implications for workforce skills and wages”.

A key finding is that, while there may be enough work to maintain full employment by 2030 under most scenarios, the transitions will be challenging, matching or even exceeding the historic transition from agriculture and manufacturing that we’ve see in the past.

“We previously found that about half the activities people are paid to do globally could theoretically be automated using currently demonstrated technologies,” the report states.

But in truth, “very few occupations – less than five percent – consist of activities that can be fully automated”.

Automation technologies, including AI and robotics, will generate significant benefits for users, businesses and economies, increasing productivity and economic growth. But even as it causes declines in certain occupations, it will change the nature of many more. McKinsey predicts that in 60 percent of occupations, at least one-third of the constituent activities could be automated. Importantly, while it may displace some workers, automation will also create new occupations that do not exist today – much as technologies and changes in the past have done before.

“While about half of all work activities globally have the technical potential to be automated by adapting currently demonstrated technologies, the proportion of work actually displaced by 2030 will likely be lower, because of technical, economic and social factors that affect adoption,” the report states.

“Even with automation, the demand for work and workers could increase as economies grow, partly fuelled by productivity growth enabled by technological progress. Rising incomes and consumption, especially in developing countries, increasing healthcare for ageing societies, investment in infrastructure and energy, and other trends will create demand for work that could help offset the displacement of workers. Additional investments such as in infrastructure and construction, beneficial in their own right, could be needed to reduce the risk of job shortages in some advanced economies.”

According to Joanna Bryson, associate professor in artificial intelligence at the University of Bath, while some basic positions are likely to be taken over by machines, AI is also creating a need for more highly skilled professionals. For example, consider the introduction of chatbots to a bank to deal with basic customer enquiries.

“You would think that would reduce the number of people managing the telephones, but what they found was that customers felt more engaged and ended up contacting the bank more,” says Bryson. “The other interesting problem was that the chatbots were solving all the easy problems,” – thus leaving humans to assist with the more complex issues.

Robert Schwarz, managing director of Nuance Communications, Australia and New Zealand, agrees. “Virtual assistants allow organisations to provide their customers with fast and accurate self-service offerings, which are often more convenient than available alternatives,” he says. “This also reduces call centre costs and has the effect of freeing up agents to undertake value-adding tasks that are more complex in nature.”

Image: 123RF’s abidal © 123RF

PREPARING FOR THE AUTOMATION RISE

The McKinsey report says that while some jobs will be more at risk than others due to automation, all workers will need to prepare and adapt to the changing workforce and way of life, as occupations evolve alongside increasingly capable machines. That adaptation may require higher educational attainment, or more time spent on activities that require social or emotional skills, creativity, high-level cognitive capabilities or other skills relatively hard to automate. The human skills, one might say. To safeguard the future and ensure sustainable outcomes, policy-makers and business leaders will need to embrace automation’s benefits and, at the same time, address the worker transitions brought about by these technologies. Mid-career job training will be essential, McKinsey advises

in its report, as will enhancing labour market dynamism and enabling worker redeployment.

“These changes will challenge current educational and workforce training models, as well as business approaches to skill-building. Another priority is rethinking and strengthening transition and income support for workers caught in the crosscurrents of automation.”

Nick Deligiannis, managing director of Hays Australia and New Zealand, says, “With AI taking over routine or repetitive tasks, employees can focus on the more exciting aspects of their job or even move into other areas of the business.

“Upskilling will be essential to ensure people become more highly capable experts in their field.”

AUTOMATION AND FM

The potential impact of automation on employment varies by occupation and sector. The activities most susceptible to robotic replacement include those in predictable environments and/or physical undertakings; for example, operating machinery, preparing fast food, and data collection and processing.

“It’s important to note, however, than even when some tasks are automated, employment in those occupations may not decline, but rather workers may perform new tasks,” the McKinsey report says.

Interestingly, with both automation and population growth on the rise, infrastructure and buildings are two areas that may create significant additional labour demand, if action is taken to bridge infrastructure gaps and overcome housing shortages, says McKinsey. It predicts that the world will need to invest 3.8 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) annually (an average of US$3.3 trillion per year) to fill infrastructure gaps, compared with its current US$2.5 trillion. This includes both developing countries that are industrialising and urbanising, and advanced economies that have underinvested in maintaining their infrastructure and buildings.

Rising incomes also create demand for more, and higher quality, buildings. According to McKinsey, these two factors could create demand for up to 80 million jobs globally, mainly in the construction sector, but also stretching across building management. These jobs include architects, engineers, carpenters, construction workers, machinery operators and other tradespeople, as well as jobs with lower skill requirements.

Automation, of course, comes with both benefits and challenges, in both the realm of facility management and within the broader spectrum, and FM stands to benefit from technology as much as any other industry. It bestows a constancy and reliable productivity that humans simply cannot guarantee. From a business perspective, AIs can be viewed as a more reliable option – they don’t call in sick, they don’t need holidays and they make fewer errors.

With great power comes great responsibility, however, and in many cases being human can outweigh the benefits of a robot.

Machines can also break and this can affect productivity and output. In some industries, such as healthcare, this will be of greater concern than in others, and it’s instances such as these where being human, having the skills to adapt and improvise, and having a free-thinking and independent will, may prove to be indispensable.

Image: 123RF’s joruba © 123RF

THE HUMAN FACTOR

While it’s wise for all workers and businesses to prepare for a changing workforce, automation will have a lesser effect on roles that involve managing people, applying expertise and undertaking social interactions. Robots are, at present, unable to match human performance in these areas – the most human of all skills – and it’s these human elements that can be emphasised, improved and expanded upon to prepare for the rise of the machines.

Equally, occupations in unpredictable environments (such as gardeners, plumbers and those in childcare and aged care) will also see less automation infiltrating their professions before 2030, because they are difficult to automate technically. They’re also jobs that typically command relatively lower wages, which makes automation a less attractive business proposition.

The trend emerging, therefore, and something facility managers can take note of, is that it’s the human aspects of a role that will take precedence in the coming years. Jobs that involve the human aspects of emotion, caring, assurance and social interaction – those encompassing the skills that innately belong to humans and are difficult to automate – are likely to be in higher demand. The report from McKinsey also found that other emerging trends that may serve as catalysts of future labour demand include:

  • investment in technology, infrastructure and buildings
  • caring for others in ageing societies
  • raising energy efficiency
  • meeting climate challenges, and
  • producing goods and services for the expanding consuming class (particularly in developing countries).

Owen Tebbutt, marketing leader, Cognitive Process Transformation for IBM Global Business Services, advises that while an increasingly automated future is on the horizon, the key is to be open and honest with employees.

“The more open an organisation can be about why and where it’s using these technologies, the less concerned employees will be,” he says.

“It’s got to be based around this idea of empowerment. It’s not there to replace jobs, but to make your job more impactful, enjoyable and productive. Human Resources needs to be very positive about some of the things this technology can do to make people more productive, happy and fulfilled.”

JUDGEMENT DAY?

Automation is already part of our everyday lives. Robotic vacuum cleaners ‘with a brain’ can memorise a home’s layout and clean every area of every room, industrial robots are now a fixture on factory floors and have been for several decades, and software algorithms help logistics companies optimise the route planning of deliveries in a faster and more efficient manner than human route planners could.

“We are on the cusp of a new automation age in which technologies not only do things we thought humans could do, but can increasingly do them at a superhuman level,” the McKinsey report says. Still, like most innovations, automation will not happen overnight. Even where the technical potential exists or is evident, the institute estimates that it will take years for automation’s effect on current workplaces and jobs to take hold. The fact of the matter is that almost every occupation has partial automation potential, as a proportion of its activities have the capacity to be automated. The key is to analyse its potential impact on activities rather than on entire occupations.

There’s no skirting the issue – technology can, has and will cause significant short-term labour displacement. But, as history demonstrates, in the long run it will also create a multitude of new jobs and unleash demand for existing ones, more than offsetting the number of jobs it destroys.

Skynet hasn’t won just yet. ●

McKinsey Global Institute’s report ‘Jobs Lost, Jobs Gained’ can be accessed via www.mckinsey.com.

This article also appears in the December/January issue of FM magazine.

Lead image: 123RF’s Sergey Soldatov © 123RF

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