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The State of Automation - Part 1

Automation and its impact on the job market, our livelihood and our way of life has been a hot topic for several years now. Seemingly every management consultancy, recruitment firm, IT company, think tank and government body in the world has at some point weighed in and released a study or white paper projecting the future impact of automation and all the doom and gloom that comes with it. 

We’ve seen research from leading IT analysts Gartner and Forrester, consultancies and auditors such as McKinsey and PwC, as well as renowned global economic organisations such as the OECD and the World Economic Forum (WEF) - all throwing their sizeable hats into the automation ring.

What the experts say

Each study has attempted to paint a picture of what the short and long-term future will look like; from analysing which social groups are most at risk to highlighting which jobs are most likely to become obsolete, from calculating how many of us will suffer to capturing the general public’s fears when it comes to automation.

Much of the research seems to conclude that certain jobs will become more at risk than others, highlighting those in the financial and manufacturing sectors as the most under threat. And it would appear that low-skilled workers and young people with entry level roles are the most at risk from automation, validating Martin Ford’s theory that those whose jobs “are on some level routine, repetitive and predictable” will likely feel the pinch. 

The OECD goes as far as predicting that automation will create more divisions in society between the educated classes and working classes, the high skilled and low skilled worker and the rich and the poor.

To believe or not to believe, that is not the question

Varying wildly in their prognoses on a scale of conservative to devastating, barely any of the research we’ve seen to date can be corroborated or supported by parallel studies, which points to a rather confusing landscape. Do we actually know how AI, robotics and other forms of automation will affect us in five,10 or 20 years? Apparently not, is the one main takeaway to be gleaned from all of this. 

But that is not to say that we should just dismiss all this heavyweight research as tedious scaremongering. After all, the fact that the research is being conducted in the first place speaks volumes. What we do know, is that to some extent and at some point, within the years to come, automation will touch our lives, and this could be in a positive or negative way depending on a variety of geographical and socio-economic factors. It’s now up to us to speculate as to how our roles might evolve over time and how we choose to be prepared for the possible, probable or inevitable.

Impact on the creative industries

Those who work in the creative industries are often cited as one of the low risk groups, who, alongside healthcare and science professionals, are less likely to see their roles disrupted or destroyed by automation. 

In 2015, Hasan Bakshi from UK non-profit Nesta claimed that “creativity is one of the three classic bottlenecks to automating work” and that “tasks which involve a high degree of human manipulation and human perception – subtle tasks – other things being equal will be more difficult to automate.

Within the creative industries, including publishing, these kinds of hypotheses have triggered the common and widespread view that we are all somehow exempt from automation, and that the craft and humanistic qualities of our work will shield us from the dangerous and entangling tentacles of automation.  

But this couldn’t be further from the truth. 

Over the next few weeks in this State of Automation series, we will examine how automation, particularly AI, will likely affect the publishing industry. We will look at the roles which are most and least at risk and discuss how the industry could potentially evolve to be better equipped to embrace forthcoming innovation.

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