EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life


Automation refers to the substitution of human input by (digitally enabled) machines. Automation is not a new phenomenon but new digital technologies have expanded the type of tasks which can be automated. Technologies which have been identified to have a potential impact on the current and future automation of jobs are advanced robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) fields such as machine learning and deep learning, as documented in a recent report from Eurofound on automation, digitisation and platforms . The automation literature specifies that tasks – that is, parts of a job – rather than whole jobs can be automated. The reason is that often jobs are made up of task bundles which are not necessarily all substitutable by a machine, or additional tasks are emerging that cannot be automated. For example, in the case of bank tellers, the introduction of ATMs resulted in a shift in the type of tasks they performed, not in the disappearance of the job.

Recent automation research has focused on the estimation of which tasks, and when, could be substituted by a machine (see, for example, recent articles on the ‘task approach’ and on the potential computerisation of jobs ). Some experts predict that technological improvements will result in technological unemployment, leaving the majority of people without a job and income, while others foresee possible shifts in jobs distribution among high-skilled and low-skilled workers and among jobs with a high level of routine (easy to automate) and jobs with a low level of routine. The tasks substitution could also create new types of tasks which will require human workers’ capabilities, especially for tasks entailing perception and manipulation tasks, creative intelligence and social intelligence tasks. It is possible that these tasks will eventually be replaced by computers or robots but not in the near future.

One crucial point is that technological change goes hand in hand with organisational change. Social partners could negotiate ways to use technological change so that the accent is put on jobs which are interesting and stimulating for workers, for example entailing problem-solving tasks, instead of making workers perform dull, repetitive or machine-based tasks.

See also: Digital Agenda; digital economy; digitisation

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