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Automation: Taking away jobs or augmenting the tasks

It was the fading winters of 1972. General motors had introduced the newest toys of automation on the shopfloor, bristling with pride and sense of excellence. Little did they know the backlash they were about to face, from a mob of disgruntled workers.Treating assemblers like trivial noisy parts of one giant machine, turned into an unparalleled uprising, later heralded as a national symbol of blue-collar disaffection.

The primacy of man back on the balance sheet, needs more serious consideration, as was evident more than half a century back. Automation makes processes faster and can easily minimize the repetitive work cycles, also has a grave impact on the employment. This hard reality can not be camouflaged by statements dispelling the gloom over automation. With AI taking away most the transactional roles, focus is on developing more cognitive and expertise skills. Having said that, we miss out of the distinct (yet easily overlooked) boundary-line between role and tasks.

Deciphering “Automatability”

Role consists of multiple tasks, sometimes running into few dozens or even few hundreds. While a role holder does many tasks, the sum total of his efforts consolidate into defining a role. While assessing a role’s “automatability”, it is imperative to consider what constitutes that role. The task of scanning through thousands of legal documents is not equivalent to the role of a lawyer. Applying jurisdiction, which may determine the fate of someone’s life or bring in new legislations, can not be equated with the tasks of counting, scanning or even proof-reading the legal documents. Task is not a role and role isnot a task. The more complex a role is,the greater number of tasks it involves, and therefore the higher is difficulty to automate that entirely. A role with few numbers of non-cognitive tasks has higher chances of automation.

While AI is ushering unprecedented levels of automation, there are two important aspects need to be considered:

Level of automatability to be determined by complexity of the role, volume of tasks and degree of cognitive decision-making involved

A gradual level of automation, supplementing to augmenting to replacing; also provides for the time & resources to be allotted for the upskilling and reskilling of the staff impacted.

A humane approach, to complement this robotic approach, will be more welcomed by the workers of all creed, white collars, blue collars as well as the “new” collars; instead of the knee-jerk havoc as cited in the GM’s Ohio Vegas plant!




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