The Future of Workforce Autonomation

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Introduction

Autonomation is the science of automation with a slight human touch to keep the machines rolling. While in one sense the conception of the automation of many aspects of the economy may be threatening it also presents a host of new opportunities. Already automation has taken over many unfulfilling and repetitive jobs that had no upward mobility (weaving, telephone operations, collecting fees at parking ramps, etc.). However, in the light of growing unemployment even such monotonous jobs appear better than none to some struggling to get by. This is a result of the changing economy not exactly keeping pace with population, but it is entrepreneurs and the future creatives who held expand and shape the economy. Thus, the challenge of automation is just another change which is a reflection of the ebb and flow of global human culture. 

Changing Times

This is a period of vast change for global culture due to the expanse of technological improvement, the challenges of climate change, and the unmitigated population growth. Culture’s stability is always tenuous, but the converging threats of the present age have people on a razor’s edge. However, some lessons from history’s own changing times could help to relieve the stress of change. For example;

As strange as it might sound today, power looms and spinning frames for textiles were once among the most vilified technologies, much like the smart-phones of today. The skilled tradespeople who had for generations depended on weaving for their livelihood feared that they would be replaced or forced to work for less money in unpleasant conditions. This fear was famously acted upon through violent protests by members of the Luddite movement in 19th century England. (Discoverty Lean Six Sigma)

While people made it through this early incursion of automation, they saw some early issues that have yet to be resolved. Automation may emphasize greed unrelated to need, as “The new levels of productivity came at a price: Defects and overproduction became major concerns” (Discoverty Lean Six Sigma). One of the dark sides of technological expansion is the obsessive quality is has that insists if a thing can be done it must be done, and that quantity is more valued than quality. While quantity may be more valuable to CEO’s, quality is more valuable to customers, and when this conflict of interests is not addressed you get the situation we find ourselves in today: mountains of trash chocking the planet as people’s basic needs go unmet by a heavily polluted environment. That is the true dark side of automation.

Since this fundamental core issue of balance is going unregistered, the dark side of automation has begun its own cycles of destruction. Autonomation is a term which developed in Japan, where the lust for profits has led corporations to create insurance policies for employees they work to the death. How automation transformed into autonomation sheds some light on the corruption of the imbalance this process has led to; 

The Japanese word Jidoka simply means “Automation.” However, Toyota changed the spelling in Japanese, and Lean practitioners in other countries often miss this. The spelling of Jidoka contains three kanji. These symbols are associated with both pronunciation and meaning. The traditional spelling translates directly as “self, motion, transformation,” but Toyota added an additional component to the middle symbol (“dō” / “motion”). The added component is the radical for “person.” Although the resulting symbol is still pronounced “dō,” the meaning is changed from “move” to “work.” This additional meaning is why Jidoka in Lean is often translated as “Auto-no-mation.” (Discoverty Lean Six Sigma)

The subconscious meaning of this change is turning humans into machines not only in the care of automation, but in the way they operate and think. This has been observed in the sociological psychology of contemporary Japanese culture in which many amazing innovations are produced, and much work gets done, but the psychic health and emotional resiliency of the population is severely damaged. Turning the population into cogs in the giant machine that is unlimited expansion capitalism would be a devastating result of automation. However, another red flag would be an unsuspecting populace embracing automation in all realms of life before the technology has really reached the place of reliability.

This was the case when Ohio man, Joshua D. Brown was recently killed when his Tesla model car was running on autopilot and crashed. While there is some mystery surrounding the death, it is clear that the owner placed too much faith in the technology of the car. Brown, “was killed May 7 in Williston, Florida, when his car's cameras failed to distinguish the white side of a turning tractor-trailer from a brightly lit sky and didn't automatically activate the brakes… Brown didn't take control and brake, either” (The Associated Press). Brown may have been watching a movie at the time, but whatever the reason this is a lost case for automation at this time. 

In Store for the Future

Analysts looking at the possibilities for the future of the workforce economy speculate that the structure of jobs may be changing. One major aspect for this is automation by default so to speak, through the e-commerce movement. So much shopping, and so many services are provided online now that the infrastructure of jobs has drastically shifted. As a result of this “Internetization”, the “percentage by which companies have ‘flattened out’ in the past 25 years, losing management layers in favor of a grid-like structure. Rather than moving up in one direction, ambitious employees will be able to move sideways, tapping into new networks” (Fox and O’Connor). This change has been a long time coming, and even longer in the realization of its appearance. 

Now, rather than the corporate ladder, workers are confronted with the complex corporate lattice, and can no longer rely on tried and true get ahead strategies. Business models are new today, and “the ladder model dates back to the industrial revolution, when successful businesses were built on economies of scale, standardization and a strict hierarchy” (Fox and O’Connor).   Rather, today people are being forced to act creatively, and even to create their own markets. One of the results of increased automation is the opposite effect of the DIY (Do-it-Yourself) industry, and the pride of craftsmanship. 

However, how this looks for the future is anyone’s guess. The Internet has already had a profound effect, and it is just in its baby phase. The fixation on Big Data, cloud computing, and the framework development for the Internet of Things emphasizes that the flow of change is just ramping up. As a result, “Career paths are becoming similarly fluid, with many following a zigzag rather than a straight path” (Fox and O’Connor). This may appear counterintuitive, but it may be just what the culture doctor ordered. This new forced fluidity may lead to a greater flexibility which will lead to creative problem solving which will transcend the lazy reliance on computers. Considering,

In the ladder model, you’re looking in one direction, which is up. In the lattice organization you can find growth by doing different roles, so you have new experiences, you acquire new skills, you tap into new networks. The world is less predictable than it was in the industrial age, so you stay relevant by acquiring a portfolio of transferable skills. (Fox and O’Connor).

Ideally this would lead to an automatization of all things which do not benefit from human interaction and creativity, while the evolving skills of the diverse and flexible workforce carve out their own niches to fulfill newly emerging markets. Many people realize this is the trend, but are somehow thinking it will not affect them. However, “A 2013 study by researchers at Oxford University posited that as many as 47% of all jobs in the United States are at risk of ‘computerization’” (Smith). Supporting this transition would be done well by primary schooling preparing the next generation for the fluidity of the lattice economy, and the need for flexibility, creativity, and critical thinking to overcome the challenges of such changes. However, this is in no way happening, as primary schooling is relying more than ever on just that automation and the relative mindlessness is cultivates (The New Economy). 

A good balance in transition to this ideal would be a mutually beneficial man and machine collaboration in which the machine supports man’s ingenuity and precision. This is occurring in some places around the world. Some examples of this beneficial marriage are, “Uber, like the Apple store—they are actually cases where humans are made more powerful by this background. And that creates a better customer experience, which creates new demand” (McKinsey Global Institute). Another example of this mutual support is the practice of variations is used by Toyota. This system moves continuously rotates workers throughout the many different departments and lines of production in order to nurture a multi-skilled workforce. This tactic has proven to:

1. To keep multiple skills sharp

2. To reduce boredom and fatigue on the part of the workers

3. To foster an appreciation for the overall picture on the part of everyone

4. To increase the potential for new idea generation, since more people would be thinking about how to do each job (Kale)

This natural progression toward atomization need not be feared.  As the CEO of Adept Technology John Dulchinos emphasized, “If you look out far enough, machines are going to win. The human body… was not designed to be a factory machine. It was designed to be a thinking machine” (The New Economy). This is true, and reveals that humanity could do well to spend more time thinking and less time shopping. The mad rush of consumerism which has enveloped the world today has done little to improve quality of life, and less to improve relationships. 

Conclusion

There is little doubt the future of the global workforce will increasingly be automatized, but this need not be a case for doomsday concern. This is a natural change that has the potential to free people up for more creative and fulfilling tasks which will foster dynamic emerging markets. In fact, this change is already occurring, and those who find themselves thriving in the new economy are those people who see challenges as opportunities. The new skills, and ways of utilizing machine collaborations have huge potential to improve the quality of life for all, but what is needed is a balanced approach which values quality over quantity.

Works Cited

Discovery Lean Six Sigma. “The Robots Are Coming! A Future of Autonomation.” Lean Six Sigma University, 12 Aug. 2015. Retrieved from: http://social.leansixsigma.university/blog/view/8690/the-robots-are-coming-a-future-of-autonomation

Fox, Killian, and Joanne O’Connor. “Five ways work will change in the future.” The Guardian, 29 Nov. 2015. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/nov/29/five-ways-work-will-change-future-of-workplace-ai-cloud-retirement-remote

Kale, Vivek. Inverting the Paradox of Excellence: How Companies Use Variations for Business Excellence and How Enterprise Variation are enabled by SAP. Baton Rouge: CRC Press, 2014. Retrieved from: https://books.google.com/books

McKinsey Global Institute. “Automation, jobs, and the future of work.” Mckinsey.com, Dec. 2014. Retrieved from: http://www.mckinsey.com/global-themes/employment-and-growth/automation-jobs-and-the-future-of-work

Smith, Aaron. “Public Predictions for the Future of Workforce Automation.” Pew Research Center, 10 Mar. 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.pewinternet.org/2016/03/10/public-predictions-for-the-future-of-workforce-automation/

The Associated Press. “Authorities investigate first driver death in self-driving car accident.” Nola.com, 3 Jul. 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.nola.com/traffic/index.ssf/2016/07/driver_killed_in_self-driving.html

The New Economy. “The rise of the machines.” Theneweconomy.com, 5 Feb. 2013. Retrieved from: http://www.theneweconomy.com/home/featured/the-rise-of-the-machines