Guest Column

The Great Displacement

2017-05-28 05:58
Automation at Charles de Gaulle

Automation at Charles de Gaulle

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Dion Chang

‘How does this work?” This is a phrase you’d better get used to saying – along with its sibling: “Can you show me how this works?” Welcome to the fourth industrial revolution and, in particular, automation.

The machines are rising. Fast. So expect to have more interactions with them. I recently came across a new batch of them at two international airports, on the same trip. The first encounter was at Charles de Gaulle in Paris.

On arrival at the airport, you are greeted by a departure hall filled with self-service stations. These not only print out your boarding pass (something most travellers are accustomed to now), but this new system also requires you to check in your luggage. There’s no longer a human doing that job. The self-service station prints out your luggage tags, along with your boarding pass. Scanning your passport at the self-service station activates and accesses all your travel details: your full itinerary, who you’re travelling with, how many bags you’re checking in. It’s big data and algorithmic management at its best. Startling, in terms of how much information they have on you, but undoubtedly efficient – which is the point.

Devoid of humans

Once you have your boarding pass and luggage tags, you proceed to the luggage drop stations, which are now also totally devoid of humans. In their place are rows of touch-screens and barcode scanners. You are now required to attach your own luggage tags to your bags, scan the barcode and place your luggage on to the conveyer belt, which weighs and assesses each bag before pushing it through to wherever luggage goes to meet its fate. Without the professional human assistance, you are left wondering if you will ever see your luggage again (I was reunited with mine).

Moving through passport control and security, you encounter more self-service machines, which scan boarding passes, and this automation continues up to the final boarding gate. Most of the duty-free newsagent stores feature self-service payment terminals as well – already standard supermarket procedure in many countries.

However, at every single self-service terminal, you will always find human help, because so many people are still coming to grips with these automated systems. But if you’ve done it once, you probably won’t need assistance again. It’s just a learning curve. But that’s not the point.

What struck me was evidence of the reduced workforce in these departure halls. When you had humans checking in your luggage, there would be about a dozen or more staff manning the check-in counters. Now there are only three or four people on hand to assist and guide you through the automated process. It’s approximately a 60% or 70% reduction in staff, which brings me to the most frequently asked question I receive as a futurist: “So what is going to happen to your jobs when the machines take over?”

The McKinsey Global Institute predicts that 45% of jobs today will be automated out of existence in the next two decades, and already, one of the terms that is used repeatedly regarding the fourth industrial revolution is: The Great Displacement.

In this phase of the revolution, most of the jobs lost to machines will be routine in nature and it’s surprising just how many jobs can be considered “routine”. Chatbots that manage your monthly budget and robot advisers that help you invest are algorithmic automations that are already disrupting the financial services sector. Many in this industry would not have considered their jobs as “routine” – so best you double-check to see if your job is at risk.

While jobs will undoubtedly be lost, those lost jobs generally resurface in a new ancillary service linked to the industry (for example, repair and maintenance), hence the term The Great Displacement. However, this displacement requires technical skill, which is why a pivotal industry such as mining in South Africa is such a concern. It is safer, and more efficient, to use machines underground, but most mine workers do not have the technical skills to be displaced.

It’s a socioeconomic time bomb.

Universal basic income

One of the solutions to The Great Displacement is the concept of a universal basic income: a scenario where governments provide every adult citizen with a minimal basic living wage. Just a year ago, this was a utopian concept and not taken seriously.

However, the fast pace of automation has many countries giving a universal basic income some serious consideration.

Finland is busy with a trial, as are Canada, India, Iran and even Kenya. Scotland is considering a pilot, and Switzerland recently voted (narrowly) against a universal basic income, but the fact that it was put to a referendum shows you how close this reality might be.

Another way to mitigate The Great Displacement is continual upskilling. I suggest to many companies that their corporate social investment policy should now be restructured with an emphasis, not only on external social development, but on a continual internal upskilling programme so that, if or when employees lose their jobs to automation, they at least have a fighting chance of being displaced, rather than being made redundant.

Never before has adult education been so crucial. Watch this upskilling industry boom, as the machines continue to rise.

Chang is the founder of Flux Trends. For more trends, visit fluxtrends.com

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