Automation and AI: why I’m looking forward to the Robopocalypse

It’s confirmed. The robots are coming. And no, I’m not running scared.

Is AI really coming for your job?

A recent study by thinktank Future Advocacy predicted that automation will affect one in five jobs across the UK. Another survey by UK research firm ADP found that on in three workers believes his or her jobs will be replaced by robots within the next ten years. And prior to his death, super-physicist Stephen Hawking ominously said, “I fear that AI may replace humans altogether.”

However, for forward-looking marketers all this fear-mongering seems a bit misplaced. After all, if there is anything that history teaches us, it’s that leaps in technological automation have consistently resulted in huge gains for humankind. Based on patterns from the Stone Age to the Information Age as well as AI advances we’re seeing already, here are two reasons I’m looking forward to the impending Robopocalpyse—along with a few thoughts on what we humans can do now to be more successful than ever when it happens.

Everyone wins in automation

Technological automation is not a new thing. The domestication of animals and the invention of the wheel, one could argue, were both technological automation events.

Similarly, the creation of mills automated the previously manual work of grinding grains and other materials. With the harnessing of steam, internal combustion, and electricity, the Industrial Revolution sprang into existence and, with increased automation capabilities, supercharged worker productivity. A line of workers on a well-tuned assembly line could produce far more than the sum of them all working in isolation.

More recently, the Space Age and the Information Age have given way to the rise of the Digital Revolution and unprecedented opportunities in terms of productivity, data, and reach. The role of marketers, in particular, has vaulted from being the guy plastering flyers in alleyways to knowledge workers managing vast networks of advertisements and streams of data—a decidedly more glamorous and intellectual career we can all be thankful for.

With each leap, the fruits of automation have not constricted opportunities, but have expanded them. Per-capita wealth, employment, and job satisfaction—have all only climbed with successive waves of automation. As the dominant species in this new landscape, the knowledge workers stand to gain the most from the next wave of automation innovation.

The inimitable Peter Drucker confirmed this much when he declared, “The most important, and indeed the truly unique, contribution of management in the twentieth century was the fifty-fold increase in the productivity of the manual worker in manufacturing. The most important contribution management needs to make in the twenty-first century is similarly to increase the productivity of knowledge work and knowledge workers.” We should expect similar increases in productivity as technology continues to improve.

Perhaps this accounts for the markedly higher level of optimism among knowledge workers—including marketers—on the subject of automation and AI. According to the 2018 State of Enterprise Work Report, 84% of knowledge workers believe workplace automation will allow them to “think of work in new and innovative ways.”

It will make work more human, not less

In the same survey, 38% of knowledge workers predicted that people in their line of work would be competing for jobs against robots, automation, or AI in the near-future.

Work futurist Sophie Wade disagrees with this group, predicting that the next wave of automation will allow us to unleash our most human strengths, rather than push humans out of the workforce altogether. “Robots are helping us work out what it really means to be human,” she says. “It’s time to move on from the rigid, machine-like types of jobs that the Industrial Age confined us to and cultivate uniquely human roles and opportunities for ourselves.”

These “uniquely human roles” will include relationship-building, creativity, complex problem-solving, and idea generation. I would argue that this is the type of work we all envisioned ourselves doing when we first jumped into the marketing profession—rather than the over-abundance of organising, communicating, and manual data re-entry we find ourselves mired in for so many hours of our days.

Sorry, Stephen Hawking.

However, before we get too comfy waiting for the endless bliss that will be the automated digital future, marketers will have some work to do to be among those who benefit from it.

Laying the Foundation for the Next Wave of Automation

To take advantage of the future, marketing teams must start by understanding their present processes and workflows. By doing this, we’ll find wasteful, manual steps that we can easily replace with simple automation. This kind of minimal value work [Ex: email routing] is a perfect candidate for automation.

If email routing is your minimal value task, for instance, start by setting up key rules based on sender and content. Of course, as you move upward to higher-value tasks, more solid systems may be needed for automation to occur.

The degree to which your team realises these benefits will be limited only by the data it can access and how fully integrated your operational system of record (OSR) is with the rest of your tools. The more connected and integrated your work management tools are with one another, the greater the reach and power of your automation and AI.

In fact, integration will be at the heart of the next explosion in automation. Imagine what can occur when your operational system of record can glean insights from the way your team collaborates in Slack, the patterns it sees in your resource management platform, or the most common roadblocks that afflict your projects in your PM software. Equipped with this ocean of data and empowered in each tool to minimise low-value tasks, automation and AI are sure to streamline our processes and boost productivity and job satisfaction.

Jada Balster is VP Marketing at Workfront

Get The Drum Newsletter

Build your marketing knowledge by choosing from daily news bulletins or a weekly special.