By Scott Heric, Co-Founder, Unionly
The Automation Revolution is imminent. Intelligent machines are accomplishing tasks we never dreamed they could do just a few years ago. The ratio of working robots to paid employees nearly doubled globally in the industrial manufacturing sector between 2016 and 2020. At this rate, the Automation Revolution could be in full swing, with current at-risk jobs being fully automated, in as little as 15 years.
The term “revolution” is not being tossed around lightly. Thus far, two revolutions have affected the way we work: the Industrial Revolution and the Information Revolution. These events impacted every part of people’s daily lives.
During the 18th century, the Industrial Revolution introduced machinery into the labor force. The economy’s focus quickly transitioned from agricultural and handicraft markets to industrial manufacturing.
Factories churned out goods faster and cheaper than handmade products. As the supply of manufactured goods rose, the cost of those goods plummeted.
During the Industrial Revolution, the average person experienced massive gains in wealth and quality of life. New jobs opened in specialized professions. Thanks to new technology, medical advancements leaped forward.
Many changes were negative, though. People flocked to cities in search of new jobs, and urban centers were not built to handle the influx. Housing shortages, poor sanitation, contaminated water, and infectious disease became the norm.
Present-day pollution and environmental damage are rooted in the Industrial Revolution. Our use of natural resources changed, and the destruction of wildlife habitats, water pollution, air pollution, and global warming were the results.
Fast forward a few centuries, and we find the Information Revolution is underway and its effects on our society are still being assessed. Developments in electronics, computer technologies, and telecommunications have created an economy based on knowledge and services, completely transforming how our society communicates and shares information.
Our access to information through the internet has turned our world into a social village. Information is transmitted globally in real-time. As events unfold across the planet, people everywhere have instant access to the same information. Technological advancements reduce costs of transportation and communication across nations. Linguistic, geographic, and cultural barriers are being shattered. New platforms for entertainment, communication, and socialization are changing human interaction globally.
As in the previous revolution, however, not all the changes of the Information Revolution are positive. Our society is spending more time on tech and becoming increasingly sedentary. The constant flow of information and communication has negatively affected sleeping patterns, shortened attention spans, caused a general feeling of distraction, and created an inability to focus.
Moving the majority of communication to tech and away from direct relationships has resulted in widespread isolation. In addition, we see a tendency to bully and lash out when communicating through the anonymity of technology. Spending so much time on tech devices has caused the erosion of empathy, social skills, imagination, and privacy. Along with the internet’s advantages, we are dealing with government spying, a systemic spread of misinformation, and the propagation of extremist ideas and pornography.
Now, we are approaching a third revolution. The Automation Revolution will mark our society’s transition from human labor to mechanized labor.
Robots armed with artificial intelligence (AI) are increasingly able to accomplish the tasks we are paid to do. Recent reports estimate that 37% of the workforce is threatened.
Machines work 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, without breaks. They do not demand better working conditions, raises in pay, vacation time, or pensions. They are more affordable and faster than we are in almost every sector. At this moment, one machine can replace about 3.3 workers.
Soon, the trucking and fast-food industries will be almost entirely automated, displacing millions. Manual labor isn’t the only field under threat, however. Automation is creeping into the medical and legal sectors as well. Intelligent machines are even gaining footholds into creative fields involving visual arts, music, and writing.
More than a third of today’s jobs may be at risk, and those numbers could climb with technological advances. In 2016, the World Economic Forum has created an entire report dedicated to the impending revolution, which it continues to update annually as new trends and statistics emerge.
As we approach this transition, it is natural to feel anxious. The largest and most wide-scale unemployment event is breaking upon humanity, but is that entirely bad?
As our economy stands, we surrender the most effective years of our lives in exchange for paper money which we trade for goods and services. We are compelled to work to meet our basic needs.
What if we were no longer forced to pursue socially acceptable career paths? What if freedom from work allowed society as a whole to discover itself and move toward a new transcendence? What if we were free to explore the passions, creative outlets, and dreams that a five-day workweek has hitherto prohibited?
Some see the Automation Revolution leading to a utopia where we direct machines to reforest our planet, clean our oceans, colonize space, and fulfill our basic needs. They see an end to war, poverty, and class structure. They see this revolution as the chance to break free of self-preservation and move toward collective self-actualization.
Others envision a dystopia in which massive unemployment leads to societies ridden with aimlessness, depression, and crime. Some even go so far as to warn of a future where AI wrests power from humans and establishes a new order.
If the past has taught us anything, the reality likely lies somewhere between the two extremes. History also shows us that the changes of one revolution bring another and that the cycle is accelerating. We are still reeling from the transitions of the Information Revolution as we stand on the brink of the Automation Revolution.
Our society is witnessing the dawn of an era that is both exciting and uncertain. No matter where we believe the changes will take us, the Automation Revolution appears unstoppable.
BioScott Heric is the Co-Founder of Unionly, a digital transaction platform built for unions to engage and organize members. He helped develop sales and account management for Avvo, growing from 30 to 500 people over seven years. After Avvo, Scott took a Chief of Staff role at Snap Advance, which at the time was part of a company called Snap Mobile Inc. For over four years, he oversaw development of the product, marketing, sales, and account management, leading to the company being the leading digital fundraising platform in higher education. Having worked on the concept for Unionly for over three years and after being acquired in January of 2020, Scott began to really think about making Unionly a reality, and in April of 2020, that dream came true.