The Automation Paradox

By Matt Juden-Bloomfield posted 03-11-2021 12:37

  

The Automation Paradox - How do we begin to turn the fly wheel

Claimed to be a tool to unleash human potential, software automation seems to have a negative impact in economic inequality. Can this be reversed?


Frequently promoted as an augmentation or means to unleash human potential, 95% of organisations surveyed that had implemented RPA software, reported improved productivity and 81% reported a reduction in cost (2). As a result, the market has seen vast growth - 62.9% since 2019; and Gartner predicts global RPA software revenue to exceed $2billion by 2021 (4)

Yet in parallel, ‘economic inequality within countries is rising’ (8) and RPA or ‘[software] automation, is critical for understanding [this]’ (1).  

Why? Software automation, a core tenet of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (FIR) represents a ‘fundamental change in the way we live, work and relate to one another’ and as then Minister for Digital, Matt Hancock said in 2017, represents ‘one of the greatest challenges we face, as a nation, and as a world’ (3). This is because FIR technologies like RPA, allow us to not only automate production, but also ‘knowledge’ (5). The effect of this, McKinsey predicts, is that 15% of the global workforce could be displaced by automation by 2030 and will need to retrain or risk being replaced by digital workers (robots) (7).   

The challenge, as highlighted by a 2017 IPPR report is the ‘impact of automation inequality will depend on the skill level of the new jobs created and individual’s ability to access [these] opportunities’ (9).  Additionally, the skills, ‘needed to take full advantage of the automation economy are different from those that have been emphasised by Higher Education institutions in the past’ and ‘there is a global dearth of talent in this area’ (5). The problem here, simply put, is that these skills are not being taught.

Furthermore, education is ‘basically socially reproductive – poorer children receive a poorer education and end up in poorer jobs and vice versa’ (6). And with the bulk of the automation disruption happening in low skilled jobs, it is the lower skilled, lower paid workers who are in need of this training. Ergo, the paradoxical impact of the growth in automation and the opportunities it represents, is the subsequent rise in inequality, which is disproportionately impacting minority groups, lower socio-economic and low/unskilled workers. 

How BPFG is tackling inequality

This paradox I have dubbed the ‘Automation Paradox’ in a recent essay for my MSt in Sustainability Leadership and it is this paradox that represents the sustainability challenge that Blue Prism For Good is looking to tackle in by focusing on educating the young people of today for the jobs of tomorrow. 

Last year Blue Prism For Good sponsored the EYFoundation Smart Futures Programme in the UK and helped 10 young people from low-income families complete paid work experience with us over the summer.  It was an incredible experience for everyone involved, despite the complexities COVID threw up; but most prominently it opened up my eyes as to the power of giving young people an opportunity for an immersive learning experience and the chance to meet like minded individuals. After winning EYF partner of the year, I was even more set to build upon this further and make it a lasting programme.

In 2021 we’ve gone even further and are sponsoring the EYFoundation Tech Smart futures programme alongside other organizations; we’ve also launched our first automation apprenticeship aimed at black and minority ethnic young people and we have 4 joining the internal automation team I lead in the summer. Finally, we’ve chosen The Good Things Foundation, an awesome charity that tackles digital exclusion in the UK and Australia, as our UK charity partner for the year. 

The hope is that by beginning to turn the fly wheel, to make opportunities specifically for those people most affected by the automation paradox and to promote the education and training of more and more people in the skills they need to thrive in tomorrow’s world – is absolutely the way to begin affirmatively overcoming the growing inequality that risks undermining the many benefits that automation could bring to society.

This is just the beginning

While I’m heartened to see some organizations taking up the charge on this battle alongside us here at Blue Prism; we urgently need governments, tech leaders and educators to recognise that this issue isn’t going to go away and is only going to get worse unless we recognise automation as a revolution, that needs to be managed appropriately.  We need to teach the skills needed to thrive in this revolution to the future workforce of tomorrow - our young people - and we needed to start this yesterday.


References:


  1. Acemoglu, D and Restrepo, P. (2020). Unpacking Skill Bias: Automation and New Tasks. AEA Papers and Proceedings, 110: 356-61. Available at: http://pascual.scripts.mit.edu/research/unpackingsbtc/unpacking_sbtc.pdf
  2. (2020) The Robots Are Waiting. Deloitte Romania. Available at: https://www2.deloitte.com/ro/en/pages/strategy/articles/the-robots-are-waiting.html
  3. Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport. (2017). The Fourth Industrial Revolution. [Online] Gov.uk. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/the-4th-industrial-revolution.
  4. (2020). Gartner Says Worldwide Robotic Process Automation Software Revenue to Reach Nearly $2 Billion in 2021. [Online] Gartner US. September 9th 2020. Available at: https://www.gartner.com/en/newsroom/press-releases/2020-09-21-gartner-says-worldwide-robotic-process-automation-software-revenue-to-reach-nearly-2-billion-in-2021.
  5. Gleason, N. (2018). Higher Education In The Era Of The Fourth Industrial Revolution. Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan, pp.1-7.
  6. Holsinger, D. & Jacob, W., 2008. Inequality In Education: Comparative And International Perspectives. Hong Kong: Comparative Education Research Centre, p.571. Available at: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0738059310001707
  7. Manyika, J., & Sneader, K. (2018). AI, Automation, And The Future Of Work: Ten Things To Solve For. [Online] McKinsey & Company. June 1st 2018. Available at: https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/future-of-work/ai-automation-and-the-future-of-work-ten-things-to-solve-for.
  8. Milanovic, B. (2018). The Inequality Paradox: Rising Inequalities Nationally, Diminishing Inequality worldwide. [Online] Available at: https://promarket.org/2018/12/10/the-inequality-paradox-rising-inequalities-nationally-diminishing-inequality-worldwide/
  9. Roberts, C., Laurence, M., & King, L. (2017). Managing Automation: Employment, Inequality And Ethics In The Digital Age. Pages 2-3. [online] IPPR.org. Available at: <https://www.ippr.org/publications/managing-automation> [Accessed 1 January 2021].

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