To hate or automate?

"Do we need to automate to innovate?" Aileen Larkin recently attended a TedxGlasgow talk where the impact of technological change on society was discussed.

So I was lucky enough to be in attendance at TedxGlasgow’s recent event where the question was asked “Do we need to automate to innovate?”

Naturally, I psyched myself up for an in-depth dialogue about bots and the life-changing technology that was just around the corner – of which there was plenty of (I even had a go of an augmented reality headset).

What I wasn’t prepared for was the concentrated discussion on society’s adaption to this technology.

You would always assume (well I would, but I’m writing the blog so you’re getting bunged in with me) that the introduction of new tech tends to spell disaster for the job market. And you’re not wrong - not entirely.

Take for example the concept of a driverless car. This technology is already being trialled across the world, and it’s only a matter of time before it’s engrained into our everyday lives.

Of course there would be the question “are they safe?!”, and the answer would be – “yes” - much safer than humans driving their own cars certainly.

Another certainty is that there will be an accident in a driverless car, and it will be bad. It will be all over the news, people will abhor technology and what it has done - the destruction it has caused.

However, in the time that takes us to grab our pitchforks and rage against automation of the machine – there will have been ten other car accidents in vehicles that had drivers behind the wheel.

As one of the speakers Russell Gunson, Director of IPPR Scotland, said: “If we don't trust technology, we're going to be left behind by countries who do.”

He went on later in the discussion to state that whilst change is out of our control, how we respond to that change isn't.

That brings me back to the potential disaster that driverless cars pose to the job market – and how we’re going to cope with it.

Think about ALL the jobs that rely on us driving our own cars. How many taxi drivers are there in Scotland? How many people work in the contact centre?

If the google-car becomes the norm will the majority of those people be out of a job? The answer is yes.

That’s where adaptation comes into play.

The industrial revolution was initially a crisis for workers. As machines introduced a more efficient and cheaper future for the textile industry – the labourer could not earn as profitable wage as before.

So came in “family wage economy”, where women had to go out and work to contribute to the household income.

A side-effect of this was that there was no-one waiting at home with the dinner on the table (shock, horror).

In this day and age if the man of the house kicked up a fuss about his dinner not being ready when he so wanted it he’d be told to piss off and get a chippy – and pick something up for his hardworking wife while he was at it.

And that - as I learned from speaker Anne Anderson, Vice-Principal at the University of Glasgow - is exactly what happened.

With women working all the time, and the difficulty that arose with it regarding the preparation of meals – fish and chip shops started springing up all over the country. As a nation we wanted different things and people jumped at the chance to provide them.

Every technological wave we have experienced in the past has (over time) actually created more jobs.

We adjust to the disruption and it changes us as a consequence - we evolve with the alterations brought about by advancing technology.

I’m not saying that I, or any of the considerably more clued up speakers, have the answer to how humans are going to respond to the technology that is coming our way – but I think we’re all looking forward to finding out.

Colin Birchenall, Chief Technology Officer of the new Local Government Digital Office, foretold that we would see greater disruption from innovation in our lifetimes than ever before, but that’s a good thing.

He went on with a suggestion for the future: “Automation will deliver direct social benefit - it will allow us to better understand cities and communities. Let’s embrace this opportunity, let's start building.”

So I leave my first ever TEDxGlasgow with an entirely different concept to ponder than the one I went in with and, if I’m honest, one that I find infinitely more interesting – let’s see what we’re capable of.

The event “Do we need to automate to innovate?” was hosted by TedXGlasgow and the Scottish Innovation Centres and featured five interesting and completely different speakers on the subject: Russell Gunson, Director of IPPR Scotland; Jean Kerr, Head of Leadership and Team Intelligence for EMEAR Cisco; Martin McDonnell, Chairman of the Soluis Group; Anne Anderson, Vice-Principal at the University of Glasgow; and Colin Birchenall, Chief Technology Officer of the new Local Government Digital Office.

By Aileen Larkin, PR & Social Media Consultant.