As members, as staff, as experts, as consultants and as communities, associations need people. And people – as members, as staff, as experts, as consultants and as communities – need associations.
As we move into a future when the position of many working people is unknown and unstable, what are the repercussions for associations, and what should we be thinking, planning and doing?
Concern over automation – the rise of the job-stealing robots – has ignited discussions across mainstream media, academia and research institutions alike. Given that technology continues to improve and advance at an alarming pace, and that projections anticipate the singularity could even occur within the next 25 years, technological innovation and development is, and will continue to be, a huge disruptor across a variety of industries. The probability of workforces, from truck drivers to surgeons, being at least radically changed if not displaced by automation, is incredibly high. This raises some interesting questions for the association space.
WILL MY MEMBERS LOSE THEIR JOBS?
Take, for example, the trucking industry. If self-driving cars start to fill the streets, and algorithms replace professionals behind the wheel, driving as an occupation will become harder to maintain – if not obsolete. What does it mean for associations within the industry, if a large proportion of their membership is unable to continue working – at least in their current capacity? Is there something associations proactively can do now to start having conversations, establishing training platforms or offering resources to prepare for and cope with an industry change? Can they still be involved with professionals who have lost their jobs, to support the transition and provide an advice network?
WILL TECHNOLOGICAL ADVANCEMENTS SUPPORT OR STRANGLE MY MEMBERS?
Self-driving trucks aren’t the only innovation that threaten the workforce. The retail industry faces self-checkout counters, robots who can audit and analyze stocks and pricing and autonomous store-bots programmed to support customers throughout their shopping experience, even greeting them at the door. Should associations for the retail space be concerned for their members, or will this robotic injection boost sales to the extent that more people need to be employed to deal with the increase in volume? Is it a cause for alarm that AI can more efficiently and effectively perform various salesperson tasks, or does it free up human employees to focus on customer interactions, give more tailored advice and offer a more personalized service? Perhaps a semi-automated retail environment offers new opportunities to employees, in the same way ATMs reduced bank branch running costs and freed employees of routine tasks to create a new work dynamic.
SHOULD WE BE FEARING OR WELCOMING AUTOMATION?
For some industries, especially those committed to human health, robotics could – and do – offer professionals a welcome hand. Robots can already carry out some fixed, routine surgical procedures, and in a huge breakthrough last year, the Smart Tissue Autonomous Robot performed soft-tissue surgery and produced more consistent and effective results than human surgeons participating in the study. The notion of supervised autonomous robots in the operating theatre could be enormously beneficial for surgeons and patients alike: Surgeons can work with more accurate, sophisticated, intelligent tools, while improving patient safety.
Psychologists and mental health professionals could similarly welcome the robot-professional relationship. Software programs to support diagnosis, like Ellie, who was designed to diagnose PTSD and depression, could offer patients an entirely objective, data-led diagnosis that might allow them more confidence to open up about their mental environment. Introducing a non-human element into this process could, then, go some way towards removing stigmas and insecurities, and to convince more people to seek support for mental health. Rather than replacing human professionals, robots could perform an important first step that ultimately promotes better human to human interaction afterwards.
These questions are worth considering, and these conversations are worth having, no matter how bleak or bright the outlook. Robots are at least changing the playing field, if not the game, and the skills and development our members need will also be affected. According to the Brookfield Institute, the younger generation is especially vulnerable to automation because its members are more often employed in entry-level jobs. Associations could be in the really important position of supporting, training and advising younger members on how to negotiate this new workplace environment.