Automation could ultimately lead to more jobs by helping businesses perform better.
Some jobs may be lost but "massive waves of unemployment" are unlikely as automation increases in New Zealand workplaces, a leading business advisor believes.
Alex Guilleux, a partner with PwC, instead believes new jobs, created by larger and wealthier economies made possible by the same technologies, are likely to offset those that will disappear.
"Some people are scared robots will take over, and while no one really knows what will result, I don't see that happening," he says. "You cannot automate everything and business will always need humans in creative and decision-making roles.
"There will be many benefits flowing from automation so it is important we address the 'scare' factor - I certainly don't see massive waves of unemployment; indeed widespread unemployment due to technology, including automation, has never materialised before."
In fact a study, based on an analysis by The Brookings Institution of a survey of 28 countries belonging to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), has found the number of new jobs has increased by six per cent in the last 50 years (Brookings is a 102-year-old US-based research group that conducts research and education in the social services, primarily economics).
Guilleux says robotic process automation (RPA) refocuses the priorities of human workers which in turn leads to improved employee engagement and customer experience.
As machines automate menial work, people will be freed up for deep thinking and creativity, use their ability to navigate complex situations, motivate teams, understand rich social contexts, act with empathy and diplomacy – and influence others to move toward their vision.
Guilleux says it is a misnomer to label automation as artificial intelligence (AI) as in its common application RPA does not include any AI.
Guilleux, who works with businesses to help them improve operational and financial performance (including through the implementation of RPA), believes companies should resist the "big bang" approach to automation and embark slowly on the technology journey so they have time to gauge how their staff and systems react.
At the same time he warns it is important to start now: "Businesses that don't buy into this risk being left behind because in 10 or 15 years it is going to be much harder for them to catch up with new technologies."
Guilleux views are supported by another report - Will Robots Steal Our Jobs - which shows that while the percentage of existing jobs at high risk of automation is likely to reach 30 per cent by the mid-2030s, the increase is expected to occur slowly.
The report is based on a PwC analysis of data compiled by the OECD looking at tasks involved in the jobs of over 200,000 workers in 29 countries (including two non-OECD countries Singapore and Russia).
The report shows New Zealand is better placed than most countries to manage the impact of automation – because it has a workforce built on roles less automatable than in other countries. The number of jobs likely to fully automated here within the next 20 years is expected to be around 24 per cent, well under the global average of 30 per cent.
However Guilleux says New Zealand cannot afford to be complacent and believes businesses should be developing strategies to re-train workers to allow the country to replace those jobs.
"The workforce of the future will change considerably by 2030," he says. "Education systems, organisations and individuals that understand potential future scenarios, and what each means for them, will be best placed to succeed."
Guilleux says research shows the impact from automation will be felt in waves with more routine and data-driven tasks such as those performed in financial services, for example, being affected initially; while physical jobs like those in transport will be more vulnerable as driverless vehicles are introduced.
PwC has identified three waves of automation:
• Algorithm – this is already happening and involves automating structured data analysis and simple digital tasks such as credit scoring. This wave is expected to come to full maturity by the early 2020s; RPA is part of this wave.
• Augmentation – this is focused on the automation of repeatable tasks and information exchange – as well as further development of drones, warehouse robots and semi-autonomous vehicles. Full maturity is likely by the late 2020s.
• Autonomy – by the 2030s this phase may include the establishment of machines able to act on their own and adapt to new situations such as fully autonomous vehicles.
The development of automation is to be the focus of the latest PwC Herald Talks business networking series at breakfast sessions in Auckland and Wellington this month.
Under the tile "When Machine Intelligence and Humans Collaborate", the sessions will seek to highlight the positive elements of the evolution of technology while at the same time addressing the "scare" factor.
Panelists will discuss the reasons why human intelligence can never be replaced, look at what the future holds for artificial intelligence, the impact on the economy and how New Zealand companies can incorporate it into their businesses.