Digitalization is reputed to cost jobs. Many people see robots and artificial intelligence as a threat to their jobs. Unfortunately, public debate does not focus nearly enough on the employment opportunities that new digital technologies can offer older people or people with physical disabilities. Nor do we hear about how it can make the day-to-day work of many employees easier. Here’s my argument in favor of embracing technology.
Robot – Friend or foe?
“Digitalization kills jobs.” One of the reasons why this theory is so popular is because the logic behind it seems so simple: Robots and algorithms can replace people because they are faster and cheaper than humans. By contrast, opponents of this theory are convinced that digitalization creates at least as many jobs as are lost. On the one hand, someone has to create and program the robots and software that replace people. And on the other hand, people will gain scope for new occupations that do not even exist today.
So is digitalization a job killer or a job engine? Unfortunately, between these two extremes it is often forgotten that new digital technologies can be used to integrate people into the labor market who would otherwise not be physically capable of doing certain types of work. This applies in particular to people with physical disabilities and older employees.
Barrier-free thanks to technology
Digitalization is increasingly eliminating the barriers that used to prevent people from working in a certain occupation. Thanks to digital communication, people with disabilities or illnesses that restrict their freedom of movement can easily communicate with their colleagues in the office from home. Increasingly intelligent speech recognition technologies are making typing on a keyboard superfluous. And so-called brain-computer interfaces even make it possible to control computers using brain waves.
Things get more difficult when it comes to eliminating barriers in physically demanding jobs, such as production or logistics. Exoskeletons are probably one of the most fascinating answers to this challenge. An exoskeleton is an exterior support structure that augments a human’s natural physical ability. Exoskeletons that are operated electronically are also referred to as wearable robotics. These robotic suits not only support the wearer’s mobility, they also give him or her additional strength. In the course of demographic change, exoskeletons could play an important role in the future in order to secure employability. That’s because they enable older people to perform tasks that would be impossible for physical reasons without modern technology.
Advantages for everybody
Yet the potential that this technology has for business extends beyond integrating older people and those with physical disabilities into the labor market. Originally, exoskeletons were developed to help paralyzed people to walk again. Meanwhile, however, many companies use them to support healthy people in everyday life. Particularly during physically strenuous activities, such as in industrial production or the construction industry, exoskeletons can noticeably relieve strain on people – whether when lifting heavy objects or when mounting them overhead.
In the ideal case, the use of this technology is a win-win situation. Employees remain healthy and companies can reduce absences due to the sick leave. These innovations could made physically demanding jobs more attractive to young people again. In the war for talent, it’s likely that the use of modern technologies to make work easier will become an increasingly important competitive factor.
People are vital
There are numerous other examples of new technological developments that support people in their daily work. These include augmented reality glasses that enrich your field of vision with useful information, or tiny computers for simultaneous interpretation that can be plugged into your ear like headphones. The “interfaces” of the human body can be used in a multitude of different ways to make work easier for people.
And last but not least, all of these technologies are of course also concrete examples of how technological progress and digitalization can create entirely new sectors and fields of activity. Whether exoskeletons, intelligent speech recognition software or augmented reality glasses: manufacturing, programming and servicing these technologies requires many well-trained experts, even if of course not everyone is a born data analyst. But in any case, advanced training is definitely the key to success. I am optimistic that we will succeed in seizing the opportunities offered by digitalization – and in finding solutions for the challenges it poses.