Will the Robots of the World Unite (to Take Our Jobs)?

“Hey Cortana, how many robots are there on Earth?” We’ll save Windows 10’s voice-activated personal assistant the trouble of answering: according to the International Federation of Robotics, there are 1.8 million industrial robots in the world. The predicted future annual growth of 14% means that an additional 1.4 million robots will come into service by 2019, with 40% of this new stock being deployed in China.

Is this a problem?

Forrester believes so: a September 2016 report by the research firm predicted that robots will eliminate 6% of jobs in the US by 2021. Echoing this sentiment, the OECD has worked out that 9% of jobs within its 21 member countries were automatable, and so at risk at some point in the future, while McKinsey believes that 45% of the activities people are paid to perform could be automated by current technology. The consultancy was less definitive about when this would take place in the twenty first century.

Others are not so sure.

A study by the Mannheim Centre for European Economic Research (ZEW) and the University of Utrecht, released last summer, shows that automation has a positive net effect on labour demand, at least in Europe. The macroeconomics logic goes like this: automation leads to reduced production costs, which results in better market prices. This drives increasing demand, which in turn triggers more jobs (and likely more robots, too). The US car industry between 2010 and 2015 illustrates this paradigm: alongside the installation of 80,000 new industrial robots, 230,000 more employees were added to the sector.

In the same vein, technology commentator Chris Boulton, writing for CIO, observes: “At AT&T, bots pull sales leads from multiple systems, enabling staff to spend more time with customers.”

In other words, it may be that the nature of jobs changes more than their absolute numbers, which could in fact be going up, if the conclusions from ZEW are correct. What is emerging, then, is the notion of an augmented workforce, with humans complementing their skill set with those of machines, computers and, yes, robots.

It would be easy to argue that the use of tools to perform tasks and create other tools is simply the continuation of a fundamental trait of humankind, at play since the Stone Age.

Two trends are, however, new and mark a turning point.

First, the degree to which human-robot collaboration applies to creative tasks is truly unprecedented.

Sure, Pepper, the Softbank android, can serve you in Pizza Hut in Singapore, and its robo-griller colleague can prepare 360 burgers per hour, but these are textbook repetitive, assembly line tasks. Easy to decompose and automate: after over 100 years of Taylorism have showed us how to.

By contrast, initiatives such as Project Magenta by Google, which aims to get machines to create art; IBM Watson, the author of the first machine-made movie trailer (not coincidentally, about an AI thriller, Morgan); or Jukedeck, a start-up that teaches machines to create music quickly and cheaply; all show how jobs that rely on intuition and aesthetics can be improved by the support of great machines.

Secondly, a new challenge arises in organizations embracing automation.

How can human resources be motivated in the face of the apparently inevitable rise of the machines? To avoid a repeat of the Luddite movement of 200 years ago, a few tactics can be considered.

At the most basic level, a safety net in the form of universal income (now in place in Finland, considered but rejected by the Swiss electorate, and included in the manifesto of a least one candidate in this spring’s presidential election) can be introduced. This will give the population comfort that a job lost to a robot (or a recession, or delocalisation) would not leave them penniless.

Redesigning job roles, including for knowledge workers and creative types, and training for new skills that incorporate the contribution of robots and Artificial Intelligence agents, is also important. As Zef Cota, the filmmaker at IBM who worked on the Morgan trailer, asserts: “Watson is the tool that helps arrange the visuals, but it still needs the human owner… I can come in and supervise the creative aspects.”

And what about the tried-and-tested reward of one-on-one time with the CEO for the highest performers? In Ex_Machina, the AI-infused remake of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, computer programmer Caleb wins a week with company CEO Nathan at his private retreat, a remote mansion where lurk quite a few AI androids .

“Hey Cortana, does the movie finish well for the humans?”

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Vincent Rousselet

Author: Vincent Rousselet

Vincent is founder and MD of V Rousselet & Associates. With more than 20 years of strategic and operational marketing experience, predominantly in IT and telecommunications, he is an experienced global marketer and strategist who has worked with some of the world’s most recognizable organizations and brands in Europe, America and Asia. Vincent is passionate about customers, who must be at the heart of strategy and transformation.