12/10/2016 - 12:38

Managing the shift to automation

12/10/2016 - 12:38


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Automation is making some real changes in the workplace, but it’s the next generation of robotic technology that will really challenge our ideas about people and employment.

PRODUCTION: Technology continues to change the way we work. Photo: Stockphoto

Automation is making some real changes in the workplace, but it’s the next generation of robotic technology that will really challenge our ideas about people and employment.

The problem with the future is that is has never managed to live up to the expectations of the futuristic world inhabited by the Jetsons of television cartoon fame.

I’m still waiting for a jet pack to speed up my daily commute, and my only regular interaction with robots is when I’m on call-waiting queues on the phone.

The promise of interactive television, which I wrote about so excitedly two decades ago, has yet to be realised.

Instead, we have reached saturation point with reality television, which is more about slowing the rapid decline of free-to-air audiences than genuinely connecting with viewers.

The only robots in my line of work are automated story software, which can convert a number of key facts into reasonably crafted news stories.

International fast food business Domino’s Pizza is already testing robot delivery units in Australia (while also investing in drone delivery), but I get the feeling both these channels are more about boosting its profile than its bottom line, at least in the short term.

The real automated firepower in the Domino’s business is the technology driving its online ordering and its data collection capability, which is making ordering easier and faster.

This is the boring bit about robots; they’re not the frilly-capped-cooking-automatons the Jetsons got me so excited about when I was a child, they’re powerful processors collecting data and transforming it into detailed customer analysis.

Updating the prescription for my glasses last week provided a timely insight into how technology and automation are putting pressure on employment numbers.

Instead of the 45-minute appointment I had five years ago, I was ushered into a booth and two machines took a number of measurements and images of my eyes.

I only spent about 10 minutes with the optometrist, who did some tests that could just have easily been done by a computer.

I imagine most clients would still like to talk to an optometrist and I have no doubt they undertake an important role, but I imagine in the near future one optometrist will evaluate data from a number of outlets.

The upside of this sort of technology is its ability to deliver healthcare to the remote corners of Australia – towns where doctors or optometrists never visit.

This is robots doing good, using the resources of a few skilled professionals to service sparse populations over vast distances.

Amid all the talk of robots replacing jobs and taking over the boring work of highly skilled professionals such as doctors, lawyers and engineers, I wonder if there aren’t a few business leaders who are looking forward to a managing a majority robot workforce.

Like energy company AGL’s chief executive Andrew Vesey, who has faced criticism from shareholders over the so-called soft targets in his $7 million remuneration package.

One third of AGL shareholders voted against the remuneration report, delivering a strike and an unambiguous message about the chief’s pay package in a year when the company reported a $408 million loss on a statutory basis.

Its underlying result was a $701 million profit, and Mr Vesey used the operation’s annual general meeting to explain how customer service staff are trained to identify signs of domestic violence, which is a major contributor to bill delinquency.

He also emphasised the importance of employee health and the powerful relationship between diversity and innovation.

Mr Vesey’s generous pay package, along with concerns AGL is not moving fast enough to reduce its reliance on coal, earned him the wrath of a considerable tranche of shareholders, however.

In this low-yield environment, the shareholders’ reaction suggests that perhaps they are more focused on profits than people, at least at a point when the business is underperforming.

The truth is the balance lies somewhere between a myopic focus on shareholder returns and an over-emphasis on the wellbeing of staff.

The bad news is increasing automation of our workplace won’t put paid to these issues because, in the end, businesses will still have customers and, while computers or robots are accurate, they’re not nuanced enough yet to totally supplant humans.

While designed by humans, robots will make mistakes and do things the designers didn’t think they ever would – just like employees.

It’s the next generation of automation we need to start thinking about – robots designed by robots for people. They will surely see the value in flying me to work, if I still have a job.


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