In early 2017, the Silicon Valley startup, Ripcord, deployed a new robot that scans physical papers and digitizes them into searchable pdf files at ten times the rate of competition.
By charging businesses a miniscule 0.0004 cents per page to scan, the robot has effectively overshadowed all competitors, obliterating the need for human workers in this line of work for the profit of its company.
With news like this, it’s easy to see why workers, specifically those in the IT field, are growing increasingly sensitive to how robotics and digitization can pull their jobs out from under them.
Yet, Ripcord’s development isn’t a bad thing. Why? Because in the same article, it’s stated that the human labor required to complete this kind of work is so tedious and time-consuming that businesses, IT or otherwise, don’t assign employees to carry out this work. What Ripcord’s robot really accomplished was generate jobs for technicians to maintain these robots, engineers to create more robots, and drivers and loaders to transport paper files to them.
It’s tempting to fall prey to the scare tactics used around the internet that paint robots and digitization in the workforce as an inherently negative thing for human labor, especially when your paycheck is made the supposed victim. But what most people often miss is that where robots replace humans, they end up creating far more jobs around them.
But in the back of your mind, you might be thinking, “Well, that says nothing about the jobs those newfangled robots took over. What happened to the workers?” And this is fair to point out. After all, when automatic threshers hit the fields during the Industrial Revolution, the number of humans in the agricultural labor force dropped significantly. But as Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist Erik Brynjolfsson points out in his interview with Scientific American, being freed of so much time-consuming labor gave people the chance to invent “whole new industries” and therefore, all new kinds of work
In other words, since machines took over the backbreaking field work, people could finally invest their talents into creating different kinds of work that didn’t and couldn’t exist without the technology that freed them. There’s a little more I want to say about this point, but I’ll come back to it later in the article.
Today, as digitization joins the back-and-forth between human and machine, those in the technology reliant field of IT are still concerned that their jobs will be automated, but in fact, evidence shows that the IT job pool is getting a large boost from it. Here’s why:
1. Augmented Workforce
Robots and digitization are far more likely to augment the human workforce than replace it completely. While robots can be insanely efficient at a few tasks, humans by contrast can learn a wide variety of skills and perform them with high proficiency. Robots take thousands of hours to design, test, and specialize for their work, but if you have an instructor who knows how to pass down job skills to new employees, you can have one additional worker on the line in a matter of days, if not hours.
What I’m getting at here is that robots and humans have different strengths, and disposing of one to focus solely on the other is inefficient business.
That’s why Amazon, despite the 50% increase in the number of robots in its warehouses, has also seen a steady 30%-50% increase in its human work force per year. The robots aren’t replacing human employees outright; they’re complementing the labor.
To put this in better context, NPR took a closer look at an Amazon warehouse picker, who worked in coordination with these robots. With the help of the robots, hours-long tasks take minutes to complete, yet pickers still aren’t entirely replaceable. At one point, a worker was assigned to pick a board game out from one of the shelves. The game was crammed so far into a storage bin that only a sliver of the box was visible, but from one look she could tell what it was. Robots on the other hand, while becoming increasingly better at identifying 3D objects, can’t match human skill in this case.
But how does this relate to IT? Picking items from a shelf isn’t necessarily a standard chore for an IT worker. In 2016, ManpowerGroup, a leading global human resource firm, composed a list of survey-driven statistics, which shows that IT jobs namely are going to be in high demand despite growing digitalization.
What ManpowerGroup’s graph shows is that the demand for IT jobs will ride on a 26% increase. Bearing this in mind, though, it may still prove useful to train yourself in a new skill while the IT getting is good. The demand for skills is fickle, and as jobs wax digital, having multiple skillsets can only increase your value.
2. More Employee Time for Greater Tasks
One of the greatest strengths robots have is that they don’t get bored. Another, possibly equal, strength is that they don’t get tired. When you pair the two together, you have a working machine that can cheerily do for its entire lifespan what would drive most people insane.
Want to spend decades regurgitating basic legal advice to questions that most people could answer with an internet search? Didn’t think so—give it to a robot!
Feel like feeding thousands of hours of your chemistry career to dropping chemicals from one test tube to another before you can begin the true research? Nah—robot.
Excited to drop pills into prescription bottles for customers while hoping that in the millions of pills you dole out, you don’t miscount a single dose? Too bad we can’t pass that off—oh wait, let a robot do that with zero error.
Notice in each of these cases that the robots don’t replace the human worker. Instead the robots cut the tedium out of their jobs like unwanted fat from a good slab of sirloin. Unlike with the automatic thresher, employing a robot doesn’t always mean the human loses their job; it can make the job more enjoyable.
But it doesn’t stop there. Automation allows IT management businesses to employ programs like our own ForeSight Automate to guard their clients’ IT resources from power outages, crashes, and malware infections. Where human technicians had to wait for these disasters to happen before they could address them, robot systems allow them to respond preemptively and use their extra time to perform even better monitoring.
Additionally, robot systems can reduce IT help desk tasks by as much as 40%, allowing workers to spend their talents on tasks and projects that more directly further their company’s end goals.
3. New Job Creation
As I touched on earlier, one of the paradoxical effects of introducing robots into the labor force is that they tend to make more jobs than before they were implemented. In fact, economists Ian Stewart, Debapratim De, and Alex Cole with Deloitte wanted to determine how long this trend has lasted, and they found that over the past nearly 150 years of technological innovation, more jobs were created by technology than it destroyed.
This trend continues today. As robots and digitized automation consistently take up jobs, and as people are freed from simpler labors, new kinds of work can be created, work that can build on the fact that portions of industries will run automatically.
But if you’re still concerned about your job going to the automatic thresher, in a manner of speaking, let’s go back to the ManpowerGroup survey I mentioned before.
They asked businesses how they planned to change their human workforce regarding the influx of robots and digitalization. After all, if robots can cut the costs of warm bodies—the taxes, the benefits, the initial training—why wouldn’t businesses invest as much as they can in automation? But what ManpowerGroup found was that 83% of businesses planned to either maintain or increase their number of employees in the future. Only 12% believed they would shed workers in response to automation.
For now, having human employees account for a majority of the workforce seems to be the favorable standard.
4. New Industrial Avenues We Can’t Predict
Perhaps what I’m looking forward to most with the advent of robots and digitization is to see what the new jobs will be. If I can return one last time to the ManpowerGroup survey, one statistic that stood out to me said that 65% of Generation Z’s jobs don’t exist yet. That means the jobs will be innovated, built from the automation that will act as yet another step in the stairway of our job industry. The work might be the maintenance of these new systems, deeper data analyses that complex AI programs produce, or something we can’t imagine yet.
Just look at the bursting popularity of Machine Learning. It’s being applied to robotic systems like predictive analytics, which allows IT businesses, economists, retailers, and more to analyze patterns and trends in computer infrastructure performance, stock patterns, and customer behavior, respectively. Workers can now take actions that would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, had robots not changed the way we work.
In the End
It’s in our human nature to adapt to changing situations. The global shifts that robots and digitalization bring to the way we work will demand us to do just that, and from it, we emerge more capable, more efficient, and wiser. The wave of automation won’t be the final change in our job market, and it’s also not the most drastic, especially for those employed in IT.
But while change may favor some workers in one generation, the next change could completely reverse the scales. Today, even outside of work influenced by automation, jobs that require multi-talented individuals are on the rise. And as I mentioned before, gaining new skills while things are relatively calm can’t hurt.