Large industrial machines revolutionized industrial processes by making redundant traditional skilled workers who spun cotton, yarn, and other materials. Industrialization created the need for people skilled in operating and repairing the very machines that filled the gap that textile workers had left behind. Though jobs were initially lost, with time more jobs were created as companies grew larger and saw significant growth in production and the demand for services.
Better levels of productivity and the emergence of service industries transformed the workplace. Work that was previously done manually with the help of ink, notebooks, and files became digitized with the help of computers, storage technology, and digitally-managed databases.
Experts had hitherto thought (falsely) that decision-making, at least, would remain with a company’s upper management because, after all, computers can’t think like humans even if they can think as well. This long-held notion has been comprehensively debunked with the advent of knowledge work automation systems. New technologies have enabled us to build computers that can think in ways that were previously the monopoly of us humans.
Considering the disruption that these new technologies have already caused, it seems only logical that we will eventually progress to the point that machines replace us in more or less every task, be it decision-making or even responding and managing human emotion. This has the potential to change the world in significant ways, and could disrupt many economies.
McKinsey & Company defines the automation of “knowledge work” as “the use of computers to perform tasks that rely on complex analyses, subtle judgments, and creative problem solving.” Advancements in technology have made it possible for computers to do just that. Extremely fast processors can process trillions of calculations a second to analyze information. The innovation in memory chips allows computers to keep tabs on huge databases. The ability to learn from past experiences and observe trends helps make computer predictions about the future possible – and also more accurate.
Moreover, sensors such as voice recognition help these computers constantly receive information from their surroundings, quite like humans perceive their environment. For example, Google Now, an intelligent personal assistant developed by Google Inc (GOOG), uses the natural language user interface to interpret what a user says, and then implements the command. Tech giants such as Amazon.com, Inc. (AMZN) and Google can be expected to diversify their businesses with investments to develop the automation of knowledge work.
Large depositories of memory, high processing speeds, and sensory perception have allowed computers to perform analyses and solve problems. As innovations continue and these computers become more advanced, they will replace humans for specific jobs. It shouldn’t be too hard for a modern manager to imagine having computer co-workers in his/her team in the not-distant future. Eventually, as technology continues its natural advancement, the manager, too, will likely be replaced by a computer. According to research from McKinsey, the tasks performed by knowledge work automation tools and systems will equal the output of something like 110-140 million full-time employees.
So what would our world be like should such a transformation occur? What will people do for their livelihoods?
One real possibility is of people beginning to invest in robots, and eventually lending them out to organizations as “robot employees.” Should such a trend begin, developing countries will lose another race to the developed world, leading to a concentration of resources in the latter.
Of course, such technology will be the ambit of the developed world, and should assist productivity levels immensely. According to McKinsey, use of knowledge production tools could have an annual economic impact of $5.2-6.7 trillion in incremental productivity around the world by 2025. Underdeveloped countries, struggling to keep up with these technologies, may have to forfeit control of their resources to foreign companies with the requisite tools. In addition, wealth disparity could further widen in developed countries, due to lower-income workers losing jobs and the well-off benefiting from investments.
As the automation of knowledge work progresses, computers will replace humans for tasks such as administration, telephone marketing, and customer complaints. Operations will become more efficient, resulting in saved costs for organizations in the long-run. In addition, two major service sectors – healthcare and education – have many knowledge management applications.
For example, smart teaching software could adjust pace to suit the characteristics of students, aiding learning. This would make both teaching and training more effective. The number of jobs for teachers will start to reduce once intelligent computers are able to answer students’ queries and address the problems they face.
In healthcare, oncologists have already started to use knowledge management tools to help in the treatment of cancer and other chronic diseases. These computers can access and process large sets of knowledge from medical reports, journals, patient records, and clinical trials. They then compare the patient’s symptoms, problems, and other details with medical records to find the probabilities of success for different treatments. The treatment with the highest probability of success is then recommended. With investments in the automation of healthcare-related knowledge work, computer-doctors with “machine-like” efficiency are a real possibility sometime down the line.
Suffice it to say, knowledge work automation is a huge development. It will change the workplace in the way that the first industrial machines revolutionized textile and farming.
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