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From robots to digital workers

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Were such policy discussions to go mainstream, they might well stimulate a much needed and overdue debate regarding the role of enterprise automation and its true impact on the workplace. However, I doubt any policies will be enacted. Even so, isn’t it surely time for an honest and open discussion about the true impact of technologies such as AI and RPA on workers and organizations?

And the question then arises: Why does any of this matter to knowledge and information managers? In truth, debates about automation taxes do not currently matter, but there is a rising tide of opposition to automation in general. Automation projects that would have been planned and implemented without notice in the past will have a harsh spotlight on them in the future. The challenge for KM professionals and the broader information management and automation community is to navigate these increasingly turbulent waters. On the one hand, it is impossible to manually manage the vast volumes of digital data we encounter today. On the other hand, we need to be sure that, in applying automation technology, we do not harm society, even if it is beneficial to ourselves.

The need for ethical thinking

The danger we may well face is the potential of blanket opposition to automation rather than a nuanced, educated, and targeted opposition. For example, the use of AI has reinvigorated interest in knowledge management. AI, and its use by Microsoft Viva Topics, Google Workspace, and startups such as Guru, brings scale and accuracy to the curation and delivery of relevant information (knowledge) to key workers. That’s a good thing, and, though far from perfect today, these tools will only get better as they learn on the job, as that is what AI does.

Similarly, a lot of inaccurate manual key entry work can be automated at scale and with a level of accuracy previously unimaginable. Improving the work undertaken by our organizations, be they in the private or public sector, is admirable and should be applauded. But, too often, automation projects are not driven by a desire to provide broad and positive benefits to make our organizations more adaptable to future and unexpected change. Rather, they are driven by short-term cost-cutting to eliminate as many human workers as possible and replace them with digital workers. These projects need to be called out for what they are: unethical and damaging to the community at large.

Short-termism has long been a problem, not just in the tech sector but also in broader society. A focus on the immediate, rather than the long term, has delivered a history of failed IT projects and wasted investments and has left us with a costly legacy. Automation driven by AI is the most potent technology revolution in history. In the long term, ethical thinking regarding how and when to embrace automation—and when to reject it— needs to win the day. If it doesn’t, an ensuing ugly backlash should come as no surprise.

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