Automation is a ‘social imperative’


Denham Sadler
Senior Reporter

Automation at a corporate level is a “social imperative” that can help to address declining productivity around the world, according to a new Information Technology and Innovation Foundation report.

The ITIF report – The Enterprise Automation Imperative: Why modern societies will need all the productivity they can get – rejects the notion that automation would lead to major job losses and instead argues that it would help countries around the world address some of the biggest challenges facing the world.

The report should serve as a wake-up call for Australia and its policy makers, given declining rates of productivity and reduced spending on R&D, according to UTS Innovation Council chair Professor Roy Green.

The report’s authors, ITIF president Robert D Atkinson and Leading Edge Forum research fellow David Moschella, conclude that now is not the time for governments and the private sectors to turn their back on automation.

“Contrary to common belief, enterprise automation is not a cause for alarm, but instead a societal imperative. Modern nations will need all the productivity they can get to address today’s ever more resource constrained challenges,” the report found.

“Although technology innovations will require, as they always have, difficult worker transitions, forecasts of massive job losses have been proven wrong ever since the dawn of the industrial revolution. Today’s labor and skills shortages suggest the doomsayers are well along the path to being wrong again.

“While we could just dismiss the hype and say, ‘here we go again’, there remains the risk of society turning away from automation at the very moment it is most needed. Today’s automation technologies are almost uncannily well suited to meet the societal challenges.”

The embrace of automation must be led by large enterprises, the report found, while governments must also play an important role.

Doing so would free up human capacity to address new societal challenges, such as energy, transportation, agriculture and repairing the environment.

“More and more work will take place either in the cloud or directly at the point of service. This means we shouldn’t assume office workers will simply take on higher-value tasks, as today’s routine tasks are already automated,” it said.

“Of course, many people will move up the value chain, but one of the main benefits of automation is it frees up human capacity so that it can be redeployed to new tasks.”

The report’s conclusions “absolutely applies” to Australia as it suffers a significant productivity slow-down compared to the 1990’s, according to Prof Green.

“Productivity is going to depend increasingly on the research and innovation intensity of our products and services, and at the moment what we see is a decline in the proportion of R&D spending by both businesses and government,” Prof Green told InnovationAus.com.

“We’re seeing not only our R&D spending going down, but also a lower take-up of robotics in our current industries than in other countries. We’re way behind the market leaders – it’s a big challenge for us.”

There is also too much emphasis on potential job losses when discussing automation in Australia, and not enough on the jobs that this technology will likely create, Prof Green said.

“The only worse thing for workers in Australia than increasing our productivity growth would be the lack of it. Of course productivity growth, if it reflects new technologies, will displace workers in many sectors but it will also create jobs in both existing and new sectors of industry, and create jobs that we can only imagine at the moment, he said.

According to the report, automating large portions of the economies in the US and EU is “one of the most important technology opportunities of the 2020s”, and will also lead to many of the most promising digital initiatives, including smart cities, precision agriculture and autonomous vehicles.

“Advances in public and private sector productivity are also needed to free up human capacity, talent and ingenuity so the workforces of the future can more fully focus on the exciting possibilities of the information age,” the report said.

“To advance prosperity and people’s potential, the information age should be embraced and not feared.”

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