Back in January, a Japanese insurance firm made an announcement that caused a minor stir.
It didn’t garner the same column inches as the chaotic first week of Donald Trump’s presidency. However, it could one day be viewed with similar historical significance – at least on a symbolic level.
In a short press release, Fukoku Mutual Life announced 34 employees were to be laid off and replaced with a specialist artificial intelligence system. The human role of calculating payouts to policyholders was to be taken over by machines.
“We anticipate that we can reduce the burden of business process by about 30%,” the statement read, projecting £1m a year saving in costs.
The cold business language bore little consideration to the employees who were losing their jobs. Nor did it read as a landmark moment in the relationship between humans and technology.
Yet, behind this bland and unspectacular statement was something many see as a terrifying new reality straight out of a certain James Cameron blockbuster – machines replacing human workers.
Before you accuse us of watching too many science fiction movies, business owners and politicians are already considering this dystopian scenario.
“There is a pretty good chance we end up with a universal basic income or something like that, due to automation,” remarked visionary tech entrepreneur Elon Musk recently, making the bold prediction this could be in as little as 10 years.
To keep the US-focus, it’s interesting then that this comes at a time when President Trump speaks of bringing back jobs to the American workers.
The same bottom-line economic factors that push manufacturers out of the US to low-wage economies, like China and Mexico, are likely to drive the push for automation. Ultimately, big businesses see automation as a way of cutting labour costs.
Professor Jan.C Ting of Temple University, Philadephia, recognises this dilemma. “If cheap immigrant labour is made unavailable, employers can hire Americans at a higher wage, or replace low-wage immigrant workers with technology and automation, which will create a smaller number of skilled jobs for Americans.”
Nor should automation be seen as only affecting big business. It’s something that can and is already transforming the lives of many small businesses – often for the better.
Think about the often mindless administrative tasks you have to do: wouldn’t it be better if they were automated, freeing up time to focus on more important aspects of your business?
Framed like this, automation is an exciting possibility. It not only empowers you to focus on important tasks but, crucially, more stimulating tasks.
I recently spoke to a product designer who wanted to spend more time developing new products but couldn’t because of their administrative and marketing workload. In fact, this is one of the most popular areas for automation – with a wealth of email and social media tools available, often for free. Think of the possibilities this opens up…
At the end of it all, we’re not just here to work. “People will have time to do other things, more complex things, more interesting things,” says Musk, but most importantly “more leisure time.”