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BusinessDay: ‘Autonomation’ and the creation of a useless class

Over the next 20 years, automation will become a focus of the C-Suite and will no longer be hidden in the dark corners of the IT department

By Johan Steyn, 1 March 2022

The idea of automation is by no means new. The expanding use of automated equipment and controls in mechanised production lines was originally described as “automation” in the automobile industry in about 1946.

Business process automation has a lengthy track record of both boosting throughput and decreasing expenses. Companies throughout the world are constantly striving to deliver more value with fewer staff while responding faster to their customers' demands. New technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) have ushered in a new era of business process automation, propelled by record-breaking processing speeds and Cloud computing.

Digital automation, intelligent automation and hyperautomation are terms we read about a lot these days. Our daily lives are progressively being automated, from the appliances we use at home to the applications we use on our mobile phones. Computer algorithms are increasingly becoming the muscles of the modern-day workforce.

Algorithmic automation has ushered in a new era of business process automation, which is expected to add $15-trillion to global GDP by 2030. During this time, current automation technologies are expected to grow from simple task automation and augmentation to full-fledged autonomy.

The pre-Keynesian Russian economist, Nikolai Kondratiev, is famous for identifying 50-60 year economic supercycles in capitalist economies. We are currently in his anticipated sixth wave, in which digitalisation, smart gadgets, hyperautomation, robotics, AI and ML all have an effect on our daily lives. We know this as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, a term coined by Charles Schwab from the World Economic Forum.

PwC, the global audit and technology firm, has identified three automation waves during the next decades: During the early part of the 2020s, the focus will be on the algorithmic automation of business tasks. Later in this decade, there will be a shift to augmentation where administrative and clerical tasks will be increasingly automated. Towards the middle of the next decade, we will experience the dawn of process autonomy, where the level of human dependencies will be lower than at any time before.

What will the next 20 years look like? I think that current technological platforms such as Robotic Process Automation (RPA) will dwindle into irrelevance unless the platform providers dramatically increase their focus from back-office automation to the front office, where clients increasingly interact with businesses through digital channels. Predictive analytics and behavioural data platforms will increase in importance.

The focus will shift from basic task automation to end-to-end value stream digitisation. Automation will become a focus of the C-Suite and will no longer be hidden somewhere in the dark corners of the IT department. The focus on job displacements will grow to be a major headache for business leaders, especially in highly regulated and unionised sectors such as banking and financial services.

We will see the rise of what I call “autonomation”, where advancing technologies will enable the execution of most tasks currently performed by people to be completed without any human involvement.

Renowned author and academic, Yuval Noah Harari, warns us of the future danger of creating a “useless class” where most people on earth will be without work and will be unable to upskill themselves.

The quest to automate has seen no end since the introduction of the automobile manufacturing plants. One is left to wonder if our drive to automate will ever stop and whether humans will innovate themselves out to job prospects altogether.

• Steyn is chair of the special interest group on artificial intelligence and robotics with the Institute of Information Technology Professionals of SA.


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