labor automation

Contributor(s): Mary K. Pratt

Labor automation is the practice of substituting technology for human labor to perform specific tasks or jobs. Automation involves mechanization but also expands it by using technology to further remove people from tasks. The term today generally applies to cases in which the technology being deployed replaces knowledge-based tasks or positions, rather than merely replacing manual processes. 

The roots of automation lie in mechanization, which dates back centuries -- even millennia -- as people throughout history have adopted technologies (even crude ones, such as stone tools) to replace human tasks. An example of mechanization is the backhoe, which replaced the use of manual labor to dig. The development and deployment of automated teller machines (ATMs) is clear example of automation being used for knowledge-based tasks, as is the use of kiosks at airports instead of human workers to check in passengers and issue flight documents.

The current iteration of automation expands the instances where technology can be substituted for human labor. Today labor automation increasingly involves using artificial intelligence and/or machine learning to perform tasks that previously required the human brain, rather than merely human muscles. One example is electronic discovery (E-discovery) in which computers perform legal document review. Another example is the use of computers, rather than radiologists, to diagnosis conditions from radiological images. Another is the use of computers for programmatic buying of advertising space.

Currently labor automation happens mostly around tasks; it's more common for a computer to replace a specific function than a person's entire job. Lawyers, for instance, still have work even if they or their paralegals aren't engaged in as much or any discovery. However, as technology continues its rapid evolution, the expectation is that computers will take over more and more tasks and then eventually entire jobs.

Labor automation likely will have a significant impact on the economic landscape. Experts predict large numbers of workers will be replaced by computers in this process, which is also often called robotic process automation. In fact, an often-cited study from Oxford Martin School's Programme on the Impacts of Future Technology estimated that 47% of U.S. jobs are at high risk of being taken over by computers in the next two decades.

Past waves of mechanization and automation also saw large-scale displacement of workers, and in the past most displaced workers then moved into higher level jobs. The classic example is the ditch digger moving into the position of backhoe operator. Some economists expect the same shift to happen with labor automation, although others have questioned the types and qualities of the tasks and positions that will remain should wide-scale computerization occur. As a result, some believe that labor automation will have implications beyond the labor and economic realms and will likely impact social, academic, political and philosophical policies as well.

This was last updated in March 2016

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