Automation is the process by which machines replace tasks previously done by humans. It has been a relatively a constant feature of work as technology has developed over the centuries. However, the current wave, which includes advanced digitalisation, artificial intelligence, semiautonomous interconnected machines, advanced robotics, 3-D printing, nanotechnology, and advanced biotechnology, are having such a transformative effect that they have collectively been described as a “fourth industrial revolution” or Industry 4.0.
New technologies are being used to redesign occupations and change the content, character and context of jobs. This has implications for the ‘quality’ of work, how it is valued, how intense it is, the skills and tools required to do it, how safe it is for workers and the relative power it affords to employers versus workers.
A positive experience can be the introduction of labour saving technology which frees workers from demanding manual labour and lets them engage in more meaningful tasks. An example of a negative outcome comes from Barclays bank where a new computer monitoring system tracked the time employees spent at their desks, and registered how long users were offline.
The changing nature of job roles due to technology will impact all workers regardless of skill level. Automation, digitisation and AI will have an impact on both ‘routine’ and ‘high-skilled’ jobs. e.g. Increases in processing power, new software and the use of ‘big data’ is already having an impact on so-called professional occupations such as accountants, lawyers, doctors and teachers.
Over the next decade, these new technologies are predicted to develop further and become more integrated into economies around the world. Although the exact nature and pace of technological change is hard to predict, and will vary across different sectors of the economy, the Covid 19 pandemic is accelerating the process. In a survey for the World Economic Forum, “94 per cent of UK companies said they were accelerating the digitalisation of tasks as a result of Covid-19, and 57 per cent said they were accelerating the automation of tasks”.
It is as yet uncertain what the impact of new technology will mean for numbers of jobs in Wales, and whether new jobs will be created, but what is clear is that it’s an urgent issue and the time to act is now.