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After hearing of a recent Oxford University study on advancing automation and its potential to displace workers, Yuh-Mei Hutt, of Tallahassee, Florida, wrote, “The idea that half of today’s jobs may vanish has changed my view of my children’s future.” Hutt was reacting not only as a mother; she heads a business and occasionally blogs about emerging technologies. Familiar as she is with the upside of computerization, the downside looms large. “How will they compete against AI?” she asked. “How will they compete against a much older and experienced workforce vying for even fewer positions?”
Labor economists have been pointing out the employment consequences of new digital technologies for several years, and the White House report dutifully lays out many of those findings. As it notes, the imminent problem is not that robots will hasten the day when there is no need for human workers. That end-of-work scenario remains speculative, and the report pays it little heed. Instead, it is far more concerned with the transition in our economy that is already under way: the types of jobs available are rapidly changing. That’s why the report is so timely. It is an attempt to elevate into Washington political circles the discussion of how automation and, increasingly, AI are affecting employment, and why it’s time to finally adopt educational and labor policies to address the plight of workers either displaced by technology or ill suited for the new opportunities.
“When I started, my job literally took me eight hours a day,” an early self-automator, whom I’ll call Gary, told me. He worked for a large corporate hotel chain that was beginning to computerize its workflow in the ’90s. Gary quickly recognized that he was spending a lot of his time repeating the same tasks, so he started learning to code after-hours. “Over the course of about three months, I built a piece of code in Lotus [1-2-3, then a popular PC spreadsheet program] that not only automated individual repetitive tasks, it effectively automated the entire job,” he says. He didn’t tell his bosses exactly what he had done, and the quality of his working life improved considerably.
A business process management system is quite different from BPA. However, it is possible to build automation on the back of a BPM implementation. The actual tools to achieve this vary, from writing custom application code to using specialist BPA tools. The advantages and disadvantages of this approach are inextricably linked – the BPM implementation provides an architecture for all processes in the business to be mapped, but this in itself delays the automation of individual processes and so benefits may be lost in the meantime.