Job losses versus freedom: where's the real RPA?

RPA firm Blue Prism has parsed RPA sentiment to provide an interesting take on automation perception and fears

For PR people at firms with a strong artificial intelligence or robotic process automation component, the well-aired concerns over technology causing swingeing job losses must be a pesky irritation that never goes away. On the one side are the journalists and others who suggest that AI and RPA are such powerful phenomena that they will wipe out swathes of employment opportunities, leaving human society to either recalibrate, create new jobs… or suffer. On the other side are the technocrats that suggest that we have always seen waves of new technologies and other catalysts and new roles have been created, often taking millions out of needing to perform dull duties. AI and RPA will do the same they say, liberating many from quotidian, brain-numbing employment and creating a new, upskilled generation.

Of course, there are a smaller number in the middle that provide a more nuanced view but still, AI and RPA have a PR problem.

"There's a lot of focus on human and rightly so," acknowledges Chris Bradshaw, CMO of Blue Prism, a leader in RPA. "Anytime you see the word ‘robot' [people are concerned]. Automation has been around since the dawn of man and the pace of automation has been increasing for three decades. The flipside is that it's true that when automation comes along, human beings still have a role."

Bradshaw's argument is a textbook answer among technology proponents and it's certainly true that there have been technology-induced memes in the past, many of which have turned out to be largely unfounded. Forty years ago, Bradshaw notes, there was lots of chatter about "the paperless office" but office automation led to a boom in printing on paper, knowledge workers and information sharing that continues to this day.

And it's true that as some professions and jobs have receded or disappeared, alternatives have come along to take their place. In my native UK, walk down your local high street and while there will no longer be chandlers and candlestick makers, but it will be awash with baristas, hair stylists and tattoo artists. Coal mining, shipbuilding and steelworks have almost gone but IT workers, marketers, ad executives, contact centre workers and others have ballooned in number.

However, the AI/RPA concern is that automation replaces large volumes of jobs in similar fields. Clerical roles and driving account for huge numbers of workers. Can we really be confident that they will be offered something else? And if not, what happens to our economy and society?

Despite his allegiance, Bradshaw is refreshingly candid on this sensitive point.

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