As technology and mechanization become widely available and evermore integral to operations in the workplace, a dynamic between human and robotic workmanship has emerged. This clash has lead many individuals and companies asking about job insecurity.
Will my job be taken by a robot?
One of the first breakthroughs in automation in the workplace was a paper written by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne in 2013. In their paper, “The Future of Employment: How susceptible are jobs to computerisation?”, Frey and Osborne analyzed the probability of 702 occupations being automated. They estimate that 47% of these positions are at high risk (between 70 and 100 percent chance) of being automated. Since then, the internet has spun itself into a unfounded, alarmist spiral of Mother Jones fear-mongering. Frey and Osbourne warn against this kind of behavior in their paper:
“We make no attempt to estimate the number of jobs that will actually be automated, and focus on potential job automatability over some unspecified number of years … we expect [high risk jobs] could be automated relatively soon, perhaps over the next decade or two.” (48)
These probabilities aside, what can robots do in the workplace that make them so worthy of creation? Boston Dynamics has helped pioneer fully-capable robots. Their line of robots are uniquely designed for specific tasks. Atlas, their newest in the line, is a humanoid built robot that has arms and legs, a sense of balance and depth perception. Watch Atlas in action here:
In theory, Atlas could do certain jobs, like delivery or surveying – both of which are singled out by Frey and Osborne as automatable, but Atlas and his cousins lack many human aspects that not make them up to snuff for certain tasks. Frankly, machines still lack the emotional component that made HAL 9000 such a successfully terrifying supervillian, but make humans unmatched for certain tasks. In fact, the occupations with the lowest risk of automation are those that deal with either managing large amounts of people and/or those that handle an emotional response, i.e. upper management, clergy, therapists, and counselors.
Will robots help or hurt?
The apex of the automation debate has been the discussion around replacing cashiers with kiosks in fast-food restaurants. Several chains have replaced traditional ordering with kiosks, automated vending, and mobile apps. Since 2015, McDonald’s has added ordering kiosks in most of their 14,000 locations. While polls indicate that most Americans prefer to order from human cashiers, McDonald’s reports that kiosks cut down on wait times and increase order accuracy. Other reports indicate that kiosks may help keep restaurants and their food cleaner by allowing employees to focus on table service and decreases the contamination of food by those interacting with people and money.
What jobs can robots do?
Robotics can improve more than just fast food companies. In their book, Machine, Platform, Crowd: Harnessing Our Digital Future, authors Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson describe three main categories, the Three D’s, of jobs that robots are “taking” for humans:
- Dull jobs are tedious or cause repetitive stress injuries to humans.
- Dirty, or “Mike Rowe jobs,” are those that most Americans don’t think about, but they need to be done. Australian mining company, Rio Tinto, has already invested in “robo-trucks” to explore quarries of metals and diamonds.
- Most robots are being used to complete dangerous tasks. Military and police forces have long used drones, bomb diffusion robots, and, yes, the first Robo-Cop is employed by the Dubai Police Force.
Bonus: engineers and companies have recently used two more categories, “The Domestic” (like the Roomba that self-vacuums your floor) and “The Dexterous” (like the da Vinci system that performs minimally invasive surgeries) to describe areas where robots are also used.
While machines may be doing jobs that humans have done, it’s not quite true to to say that automation is taking jobs away from people. Robots are doing the jobs that people don’t want, and freeing humans to focus on advancing in places robots cannot operate.
Even more promising, Gartner found that, by 2020, more jobs will be created through the use of automation, than jobs automation will eliminate. The research firm found that 1.8 million jobs will likely be eliminated by automation or artificial intelligence, but will create 2.3 million jobs in the same amount of time. In their press release, Gartner posited:
“AI will improve the productivity of many jobs…[and will create] millions more new positions of highly skilled, management and even the entry-level and low-skilled variety.”
How may we help you: robots in call centers
One of the most at-risk occupations for automation are call center jobs. According to the BBC, call centers around the world may be soon using AI to replace millions of employees. On the other hand, T -Mobile CEO John Legere announced earlier this month that the company would be revamping their call centers to employ humans exclusively. In his announcement, Legere referred to the modern call center experience of phone menus, canned phrases and Interactive Voice Response (IVR) systems, “a massive digital fortress” that fails customers. Legere was so confident in the system that he alluded to customers abandoning competitors Verizon and and AT&T in favor of their customer service. He remarked about his competitors, “They are big. They are really good at sucking.”
While it is true that many companies are beginning to rely more on IVR systems over human representatives, customers still prefer speaking to human representatives than robots. And when 90% of companies say they compete in customer service, it may be more pertinent to keep hiring people for customers to talk to.
In essence, yes, automatons and AI are being used more in work environments. Whether it’s a threat to humans or if they are aiding human advancement in the workplace is uncertain. As much as half of all occupations may be subject to robot replacement, but to do so would be costly. While it may be pertinent to keep an eye on the growth of robotics, an alarmist attitude towards robotics is unwarranted. Look forward to more mechanical advances in the workplace. Sooner than we think, we could be working alongside C-3PO, WALL-E, or Jinx.
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