Almost on a daily basis, there is news of some new scientific or technological development which brings to the fore the magnitude of the challenge of adjustment facing Barbados as a result of sweeping change taking place on a global level.
These developments, with far-reaching implications for various aspects of human life, are obvious to those who have eyes to see and choose to see instead of burying their heads in the sand, pretending that these changes are not for real, and hoping that they will soon go away.
The facts of the matter is that they are not going to. These changes are with us to stay and the only choice we really face is to seek to adapt as best as we can. Just three decades ago when typewriters, stencil and telex machines held sway in most offices and were considered cutting edge technologies, who would have envisaged the scale of the transformation brought about in a matter of years by the advent of computer technology?
If someone were told back then that sending a letter via the post would become almost obsolete because an emerging technology called the Internet with a feature known as email which would allow such communication to be done almost instantaneously, the person most likely would have thought that the scenario being referred to was confined to the pages of some science fiction novel.
Today, email has largely replaced snail mail, the computer has eliminated the typewriter and printing office documents using stencils is now history. And we have not even touched on the revolution brought about by the invention of the smart phone, that ubiquitous little gadget which allows us to perform many previously office-confined functions on the go, regardless of where we are.
A few short decades ago, this marvellous new world was unimaginable. Soon, the Barbadian workplace will have to contend with a new wave of technological innovation. This time, it relates to the challenge of automation where robots are gradually taking over various functions related to the production of goods and services that were previously performed by humans.
This trend already is gaining momentum in many industrialized economies. An article in Wired, an American print and online magazine which focuses on how emerging technologies affect culture, the economy, and politics, made the following observation some time ago as the trend of automation was taking hold.
“The robots haven’t just landed in the workplace — they’re expanding skills, moving up the corporate ladder, showing awesome productivity and retention rates, and increasingly shoving aside their human counterparts. One multi-tasker bot, from Momentum Machines, can make (and flip) a gourmet hamburger in Ten seconds and could soon replace an entire McDonalds crew. A manufacturing device from Universal Robots doesn’t just solder, paint, screw, glue, and grasp — it builds new parts for itself on the fly when they wear out or bust.”
Have we started as a society to prepare ourselves to cope with this brave new world of the future which is unfolding before our eyes? History has repeatedly shown when that trends take root in the developed world, they eventually make their way here — confirmation that we are truly inhabitants of an increasingly globalized world.
It can be argued, based just on observation, that a lot of these issues are not being taken seriously enough. In so many ways, our society really needs to begin a serious conversation about the future on the many critical issues which have far-reaching implications for the way of life to which we have grown accustomed.
Because of the socialist underpinnings of our society with the welfare state as the centrepiece, many Barbadians have grown up believing that they are entitled to a job, especially on completion of their education. Such thinking, no doubt, has been encouraged mainly by the political class and the trade union movement.
Automation presents a direct challenge to this assumption. We believe in a labour-intensive model of production, even though such is no longer in vogue around the world, and expect companies to maintain such arrangements even though it may not be feasible for them to do so, especially from the standpoint of competitiveness.
While some companies may see maintaining a larger than required workforce as part of their corporate social responsibility, even though they do not have to, the harsh reality is that businesses exist, not primarily to create or maintain jobs, but to create wealth for their shareholders.
That is why it is so important that we as a society engage in a serious conversation on these issues. When automation starts to knock loudly on our door, will we be caught napping, as was the case with some other issues, or will we be better prepared? The choice is entirely up to us.