Automation has been evolving since the stone age. The pursuit of increased efficiency through mechanisation has progressed through the industrial revolution and steam age, into telephony and computers. Now, in the digital age, automation has the potential to enhance productivity in the home as well as at work.

In 1913 Henry Ford’s mechanised production lines cut the time taken to produce a car from 12 hours to 90 minutes. Now vehicles are built by robots. Other technologies, including digital computer controls and artificial intelligence, are driving increased automation and making the machines themselves more autonomous.

The impact of automation can be felt vertically and horizontally - from the factory floor to the boardroom and across supply chains, logistics and utilities.

The late 20th century brought mobile phones and digital cameras. More than half the world’s population now uses the internet. The pace of developments has improved productivity in sectors from agriculture to healthcare and defence, with GDP per worker rising in many developed markets by 45 per cent-75 per cent since 1980.

In the last decade, artificial intelligence has given us facial and speech recognition while robotics utilises machine-vision technology to process images and perform automatic inspection for manufacturers.

While automation was historically associated with manufacturing, the food services and accommodation sectors have greater automation potential.

The pandemic has accelerated its adoption, especially in the labour-intensive retail sector. A surge in online sales and e-commerce has moved automation beyond cash registers and bar-codes. Contactless transactions, automated ordering and sophisticated websites are common now: virtual shopping may be in the future.

However, warehouse automation has lagged in comparison to manufacturing, with mechanised handling such as fork lifts and conveyors still used. Just 5 per cent of warehouses were automated in 2016; 15 per cent were mechanised, but 80 per cent manually operated. Robots capable of picking and packing will change this.

In transport automatic air pilots are being followed by autonomous cars; satellites and 5G are transforming telecommunications. Healthcare is being increasingly digitalised, with AI algorithms and patient-monitoring systems. In finance, digital technology, including blockchain, can aid conversational banking in front-office, fraud detection in middle-office and credit underwriting in back-office.

Greater automation allows stronger competitiveness, increased productivity, higher output and lower costs. But the producers’ gain may be the users’ loss. Technology impacts on jobs and privacy, with more automation potentially leading to higher unemployment, exacerbating inequality and eroding human capital.

But replacing manually-intensive and repetitive tasks by automation frees employees to perform roles with greater expertise, improving their welfare.

And automation can help the environment. Robots require less work space while monitoring inputs limits waste and can save energy; driverless cars could reduce emissions and ease congestion Technologies such as AI can predict natural disasters and detect diseases.

Improved efficiency and productivity can enhance the quality of life with increased competition widening consumer experience. The demand for skilled workers requires better education.

But the rise in collaborative co-bots - robots that interact and work alongside humans - suggests the future may be less threatening that feared.

First published 14th June 2021.

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