5G-powered automation will transform work for the better

The writer is Nokia’s chief technology officer and president of Nokia Bell Labs

To understand the future of work we must look to our past. In 1807, London’s Pall Mall became the first street in the world to be illuminated by gas light. Soon there were tens of thousands of gas-powered streetlamps across the city, creating thousands of new jobs for lamplighters.

But by the end of the 19th century, cities across the world were embracing the electric streetlamp. This safer, cheaper and more energy-efficient technology removed the need for lamplighters but it created jobs requiring new skills: installing, repairing, maintaining and managing streetlamps and the networks to power them.

This story is commonplace. The evolution of work and the advancement of technology go hand in hand, although not always in step. We are entering a new era of 5G-powered automation that has the potential to transform entire industries. And contrary to popular belief, this shift does not mean that robots will replace humans. Rather, they will assist and augment human skills, resulting in increased productivity, higher wages and new jobs.

We invent machines to perform tasks that are difficult for humans or where there are fundamental human limits. Computers are used for complex calculation; vehicles for accelerated transportation; and robots for precise assembly.

This human-machine co-evolution will continue. Nokia estimates that 70 per cent of jobs will be “new-collar jobs” by 2030. New-collar jobs will be of two types — the first is traditionally described as blue collar. Technology will expand the number and types of physical roles workers can safely perform in an array of industries. For example, a new-collar construction worker will be able to use robots and exoskeletons to accomplish demanding tasks while remaining protected from hazards or exposure to toxic substances.

The second type, which we think of today as white collar, will become more creative through the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning. In a future pandemic, a new-collar medic would be able to test and diagnose patients remotely, with continuous monitoring and tracking of contacts leading to reduced disease spreading.

However, concern about job losses due to automation is warranted in one employment type: repetitive clerical roles. These roles will indeed disappear over time.

The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the need for companies to operate remotely. During national lockdowns, most e-retailers had sufficient digital infrastructure to respond to the increase in demand. But the same was not true of more “physical” industries for which 5G infrastructure did not yet exist. This must change for all industries that require remote operation, reconfiguration and automation to increase resilience.

Since 2000, most sectors have shown an increase in productivity — ranging from 20 per cent in retail and logistics to more than 400 per cent in electronics manufacturing — as investment in automation has increased. This has led to lower-cost goods and shorter working hours with higher wages (driven by higher profitability). That, in turn, leads to increasing demand and further economic growth.

In the automated future, workers will be able to acquire new skills by using tools and systems that augment human abilities, making it easier to change jobs across industries. This will make employment and the overall economy more adaptive and resilient to change.

The rise of remote working should also prompt a rethink of workplaces based in densely populated cities and the associated travel and pollution. We have the chance to build more resilient businesses and stronger economies while giving workers a better work-life balance.

But technology only gives us the tools. We need to collectively invest in the new digital infrastructure if we are to build this better future for all humankind.

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