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February 22, 2016
The machines are not coming to take over the world (part I)
By: Ariel Bernstein

Our 2016 Accenture Technology Vision highlights five technology trends that will help enterprises succeed with a People First approach. One of those trends is intelligent automation: using automation to do things differently, do different things, and create new jobs, products, and services. But “automation” is a word that elicits strong reactions from people, particularly in the context of jobs and economic growth. Many people fear that automation will be used to flat-out eliminate human jobs – and that in fact we may be innovating ourselves out of existence. In this two-part blog series, we’ll examine the fears related to this trend, and consider its potential benefits and pitfalls in more detail.

Artificial Intelligence

Here’s an example of intelligent automation that seems scary at first blush: The Associated Press partnered with Automated Insights, whose “Wordsmith” platform AP uses to automate the creation of quarterly earnings reports. Before, those reports had to be researched and written by humans; now, a computer system does the work. No reporter needed. This seems like an obvious example of computers taking jobs from humans.

But don’t cry for journalists: not a single AP job has been lost because quarterly financial reports are being written by computers. In fact, it’s been a win for everyone: the automated system can generate more of these reports than humans can, and faster (the AP estimated that it previously covered 300 companies per quarter, and now covers 3,000). Meanwhile, the human reporters who previously had to spend their time writing these basic reports – which largely follow predictable templates and are tedious for humans to write – can spend their time on stories where a journalist’s instincts and skills can be put to better use.

As The Verge noted in the piece linked above, a journalist who ordinarily would have had to spend his time (and significant experience) writing a simple, straightforward earnings report was instead freed up to work on a nuanced report that put the company’s earnings in context. That nuanced report was a much more valuable use of the reporter’s time. No computer can develop leads and sources, interview experts, or use its years of experience to judge when something might be worthy of more scrutiny. A computer is not going to uncover the Watergate scandal – not yet, anyway.

Similar examples exist in other industries. Many jobs may be “susceptible to computerization,” as researchers suggest based on the amount of time those jobs have gone without disruption, but computerization does not automatically mean job loss. Airline pilots are another good example. You’ve heard the expression “The airplane flies itself”? First of all, that’s not true. Autopilot systems are extremely sophisticated, and in many cases planes are capable of both maintaining flight and even landing themselves – but there are still pilots in the cockpit, because someone needs to program the autopilot, monitor it throughout the flight, keep in touch with air traffic control and the airline, monitor fuel consumption against the limits set for passenger flights, and so on. The job of an airline pilot today is not the same as the job he or she would have done decades ago – but the job is still there. It’s just performed in conjunction with automated systems.

Essentially no relationship

The real-world numbers confirm this. As Scott Andes and Mark Muro reported for Brookings last year:

“If robots are a substitute for human workers, then one would expect the countries with much higher investment rates in automation technology to have experienced greater employment loss in their manufacturing sectors… Yet the evidence suggests there is essentially no relationship between the change in manufacturing employment and robot use. Despite the installation of far more robots between 1993 and 2007, Germany lost just 19 percent of its manufacturing jobs between 1996 and 2012 compared to a 33 percent drop in the United States. (We introduce a three-year time lag to allow for robots to influence the labor market and continued with the most recent data, 2012). Korea, France, and Italy also lost fewer manufacturing jobs than the United States even as they introduced more industrial robots. On the other hand, countries like the United Kingdom and Australia invested less in robots but saw faster declines in their manufacturing sectors.”

Moreover, Andes and Muro note, productivity figures suggest that robots are “increasingly essential to the competitiveness of a country’s manufacturing sector.” If a country’s manufacturing becomes uncompetitive by foregoing robots, it will be forced to shed jobs. Intelligent automation can help keep organizations and sectors competitive – which keeps people at work.

Deployed wisely, intelligent automation offers positive benefits for both companies and their employees; we’ve seen this in some of the examples above, and reflected in the larger scale data as reported. Still, many people worry that we’re on the cusp of a major technological displacement of human workers – essentially, “This time it’s different.” In part two of this series, we’ll demonstrate that this prediction is nothing new. Stay tuned.

Ari Bernstein is a co-author of the Accenture Technology Vision 2016. See the Accenture Technology Vision here.

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