The arrival of any new technology that promises to change the way we do things has always created curiosity and some anxiety in society; think of the introduction of machines during the Industrial Revolution. In today’s world, we are seeing the dramatic rise in the adoption of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and automation in business.
How concerned should we be about the impact of these emerging technologies on the South African workplace? If history is anything to go by, less so than we currently are.
While in the past new technologies have disrupted the workforce, new jobs and new industry segments have been created in their place. Productivity raising technologies – like AI and automation – are helping transform traditional roles, up-leveling them and creating new forms of employment.
Today, we see AI, combined with machine learning, automation technologies and massive compute power, leading the way towards the Autonomous Revolution. This sees machines for the first time, increasingly capable of accomplishing activities that were once considered beyond their capabilities, such as making judgments calls, sensing emotion or even driving.
In effect, autonomous is the next level of automation wherein automated solutions still continually need users to intervene and dictate their operations. True autonomous solutions can, once powered on, fully operate on their own to make decisions that are not only the most efficient for the user but, because of the use of AI, might even suggest a better outcome.
The Economist Intelligence Unit, recently ranked South Africa 22 out of 25 countries for its preparedness for smoothly integrating intelligent automation into its economy in its Automation Readiness Index. The report finds that SA, which is classified as ’emerging’ must develop more effective education policies and teacher training programmes, improve curriculum innovation, provide more career guidance to students, and increase the use of technology and data in education.
It adds that there is a need for more government-led research on the impact of automation on employment and targeted programmes to support retraining for existing workforces and university students alike, as well as an emphasis on continual learning.
It is also key to note that the technology itself might help the transition, after all, its aim is to augment human skills, and help free them up to do higher value work, not replace.
Opportunity to upgrade oneself
Emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence aren’t the enemy of jobs. New technologies actually end up creating different, higher-paying jobs than the ones they replace.
Automation is certainly not about replacing employees with machines. Rather, it’s about speeding up tasks that take more time than businesses can afford to give to them as they seek to innovate at pace and achieve greater profitability through efficiency and by enabling people to focus on more valuable tasks.
It is about improving the decision-making capabilities of people by arming them with a richness of highly relevant, topical and timely data that otherwise would not be possible to collect.
For example, in an HR function, processes such as uploading job descriptions, screening applicant resumes, and filling out compliance forms take time away from doing truly value-added functions, such as helping employees reorient their careers, or helping executives become better managers.
Meanwhile, intelligent applications within HR systems can automate some of those more mundane chores and help HR staff realise more of their own potential. Far from taking over HR jobs, AI and other emerging technologies enable HR professionals to redefine their roles and to refocus their efforts on more strategic matters that machines simply can’t handle.
The autonomous enterprise means less time on manual tasks that most employees are not interested in, less chance for human error as a result of tiring labour-intensive work and more time for enrichment and collaboration. For example, an autonomous database does not require human intervention for mundane tasks, such as patching, turning and protecting the data from security vulnerabilities.
It means a change of job scope, and an opportunity to upgrade oneself to the next level of the job. The autonomous enterprise is here to help, not replace.
Organisations should start by deploying non-mission critical workloads and see how quickly they reap the rewards and re-skill workers, while policymakers need to collaborate with the business community to help employers and employees of tomorrow while they are in transition, enabling them to boost productivity and stay relevant. We are only at the start of the Autonomous Revolution, and the early adopters are more likely to harness the full benefits.
By Niral Patel, MD and Technology Leader for Oracle South Africa