TECHNOLOGY

Creative Destruction or Creative Enhancement?

Understanding the impact of hyperautomation and
workflow orchestration in the language industry

By Bruno Bitter

The latest wave of industrial automation includes key technologies like hyperautomation, workflow orchestration, and generative artificial intelligence. Even separately, but especially when deployed together, these technologies can significantly widen the range of tasks and jobs software can perform. 

How will this new wave of automation impact jobs? How will these technologies transform roles? How disruptive can these changes become? 

These are questions many professionals are asking in our industry too.

Today, I am directly involved in this new wave of automation: I am, with an amazing team, literally building and rolling out some of these technologies in the language industry this year. I don’t claim to have the crystal ball, nor do I claim to be a time traveller from the future. Instead, I like to heed the advice of Albert Einstein who famously wrote, “If you want to know the future, look at the past.”

Following Einstein’s advice, here are a couple of stories of creative destruction or creative enhancement from the not-so-distant past that I believe can show us where the puck of hyperautomation could be going within the language industry.

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How RPA pilots became the new normal

Remotely piloted aircrafts (RPAs, a.k.a. “drones”) have become a common sight in the US military by the end of the 2000s. With no need for men (or women) in these aircrafts, what happened with the formerly glamorous pilot jobs? It turns out, that with every Top Gun job lost, multiple new aviation jobs were created — both directly (in the military), and as a spillover effect, also across other industries. The inflection point happened in 2017, a year when more RPA jobs were available in the US Air Force than any other pilot position. RPA crews are larger than traditional teams, as they include many new specialist roles. The iconic B-52 bomber had a crew of just five (for geeks: a pilot, an aircraft commander, a radar navigator, a navigator, and an electronic warfare officer). A modern “drone” has a crew ratio of 10 to one, or 10 “pilots” to each aircraft, including sensor operators, system safety engineers, mission planners, and maintenance engineers. 

The parallels are easy to spot within our industry. We have started to see it with the proliferation of solution architect roles. Future “PM crews” could likely include workflow orchestration planners, process automation specialists, content strategists, solution engineers, and data and business analysts. We know from William Gibson that, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” Not surprisingly, we can already see organizations, especially among tech-enabled language solution providers that are actively building such teams. 

Just like with aviators, the future of project management teams in the language industry is also likely to be expansion, not contraction.

That’s not the end of the drone pilots story. For a decade, pilots of RPAs were drawn from the ranks of rated US Air Force pilots in all other systems, from fighters and bombers to transports. This is likely to happen in language industry operations too, with project managers morphing into workflow orchestrator specialists. 

Today, the recruitment net needs to be cast much wider for RPA pilots, because there is a shortage of “automated aviation” professionals. One of the reasons of the labor shortage is the huge spillover effect of the technology into domestic, commercial uses. Welcome to the drone economy: the domestic commercial use of drones is booming across dozens of industries, from law enforcement to Hollywood moviemaking. According to Research and Markets, the demand for drone pilots is expected to grow by over 50% over the next five years, with sales projected to reach over $54 billion by 2027. Just take a look at Glassdoor where the median salary for a drone operator sits currently at over $80,000. 

The original killer applications of the PC era and the role of accountants

One of the first recognized examples of a “killer application” is generally agreed to be the VisiCalc app for the Apple II series. VisiCalc was the first spreadsheet program for personal computers. Intuit’s QuickBooks accounting software followed in 1983. To add oil to the growing fire, Microsoft debuted Excel in 1985 which was also positioned as a “killer application.” These technologies dramatically changed the work done by accountants but have not “killed” the profession at all. The opposite has happened: Ever since the launch of VisiCalc, the field has thrived and grown significantly. In 1979, there were about 299,000 people working as accountants, bookkeepers, or auditors, just in the United States. In 1989, just a few years after the introduction of Excel and QuickBooks, accounting was one of the fastest-growing industries in the country, with over half a million people employed. The field had grown 75% in 10 years. And it’s still growing today. According to Statista, there are now about 1.28 million accountants, bookkeepers, and auditors, and that number is expected to keep growing through 2029, by about 4% a year.

Technology has optimized the common roles and tasks of accountants, with some of the latest leaps in technology even eliminating some of those tasks, leaving professionals with more time than ever. How is this time used? Advisory roles are proliferating, as well as services around financial planning, forecasting, and data analysis in general. Also, an average CPA can service dramatically more customers than just a few decades ago. Again, it is not difficult to recognize parallels with our own industry. With the new wave of automation, we could see more consulting, more training, more coaching, and more strategy from language service providers.

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Creative destruction or creative enhancement?

Assessing not just the outlook of accountants or pilots, The World Economic Forum estimated that by 2025, technology will create at least 12 million more jobs than it destroys, a sign that in the long run, automation can be a net positive for society. Another recent study, from Wharton, also suggests that companies investing in the new wave of automation tend to hire and retain more people than their peers who do not. The Wharton study, which assessed five years of business data from across Canada, found that investing in automation helps to boost the efficiency and quality of work, with the reduced costs often meaning that there are more jobs to go around for their human peers. This is due to the fact that these firms become far more productive, and therefore need more workers to meet the increase in demand. This is exactly the pattern that was seen with Excel and accountants from the 1980s onwards, or drones and pilots from the 2010s onwards. We also see this economic dynamic with machine translation in the language industry. Language solution providers that are at the forefront of adopting new models like “machine translation expert in the loop” are thriving and creating new jobs at a faster rate than traditional competitors that are not adopting these new technologies and models.

This March, we will release the commercial version of our SaaS product, Blackbird.io. Blackbird will provide enterprise-scale automation and workflow orchestration with a simple no-code/low-code platform. I expect it to challenge, but also enhance the role of project managers, solution architects, and even developers across our industry. I also expect it to help more agencies enter the elite league of “tech-enabled language solution providers.”

Stewart Brand is an American writer, best known as editor of the Whole Earth Catalog. The Whole Earth Catalog inspired the Homebrew Computing Club, which inspired a young Steve Wozniak to build Apple, which inspired the personal computer movements, which in turn led to the original web, the open-source software movement, and everything else that came after it. Stewart Brand is a personal inspiration to me too, and it feels appropriate to finish with a brainy quote from him: Once a new technology rolls over you, if you’re not part of the steamroller, you’re part of the road.

Bruno Bitter is co-founder and CEO of Blackbird.io and lives in Toronto, Canada.

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