Our class discussions of self-driving cars, virtual reality in the classroom, and increased automation had me thinking— What does all of this mean for us? If human capital is considered the most important asset companies need to grow and innovate, then why are robots taking our jobs?
In this blog post, I will discuss the implications that the “no-collar” phenomenon of increased automation has had in the workplace. I will explore recent robotic developments at some of the companies that we are visiting and the effects these developments have had, or will have, on their employees. I will then discuss the shortcomings of intelligent automation and how to navigate a rapidly changing labor market.
Just as machines transformed the factory floor during the Industrial Revolution, Robotic Process Automation (RPA) and Intelligent Automation (IA) are transforming today’s workplace. Key distinctions arise between the two automated tools. Robotic Process Automation allows for the automation of manual, repetitive, and rule-oriented activities. Intelligent Automation takes RPA a step further by gathering data and reasoning to mimic human perception. Lower cost data storage and processing power have allowed rapid developments in Artificial Intelligence, creating Intelligent Automation solutions that more closely resemble human beings. Characteristics and skills once unique to humans including problem solving, persuasion, and judgment are some of the skills bots such as IBM’s Watson are programmed to emulate.
As you read this post, engineers are developing robots with emotional intelligence that allows them to behave and think more like human beings. The U.S. Navy’s Octavia bot operates with a “theory of mind” functioning like empathy enabling it to anticipate one’s mental state. Humanoid robots such as SoftBank’s Pepper bot have been designed to be “genuine companions.” Pepper is programmed to perceive human emotion, care about one’s habits and interests, adapt to one’s mood, and might be more endearing than some of its human counterparts.
Before befriending a Pepper bot, there are limitations one should be aware of. How “genuine” could these relationships with bots like Pepper actually be? We know bots can think, act, and interact like humans, but can they feel? The answer is no. Researchers have yet to confirm the capacity of robots to feel and experience emotions as humans do. In this sense, one’s “connection” with a Pepper bot may be more of a one-sided illusion.
Given the immense potential and limitations of bots, let’s explore how Silicon Valley utilizes robotic processes and Intelligent Automation.
Since Uber’s “robocar” took to the streets in May 2016, Travis Kalanick declared Uber to be “at the beginning of becoming a robotics company.” Kalanick anticipates the companionship of a driver will be replaced by artificial intelligence chatbots programmed into the vehicles. Uber’s robotic initiatives also extend to UberEats. Kalanick predicts that humanoid robots will one day take the place of delivery workers and deliver pizzas from Uber’s driverless cars.
Uber’s continued innovation has sparked criticism from Uber drivers fearful of losing their jobs. Kalanick appeases drivers with prospects of partnering with cities for developmental roles. Resisting change would likely come at the cost of Uber’s competitive pricing strategy, causing Uber to fall behind in a highly competitive industry. Kalanick asserts, “Look, this is the way the world is going…The world isn’t always great.”
Walmart employs bots in over fifty retail stores in efforts to digitize its stores and speed up the shopping experience. The robots can scan shelves, check for out-of-stock items, identify missing or incorrect labels, and alert employees if action is needed. Walmart hopes to eliminate the mundane aspects of retail for its employees while increasing efficiency and accuracy of the shelving and re-stocking processes.
Walmart insists that its robots are meant to assist employees, not replace them. Walmart affirms it is saving employees from carrying out mundane tasks, allowing them to perform more meaningful customer service work. Walmart has yet to replace employees with the bots and claims its deployment of robots won’t lead to job losses. Critics question whether Walmart’s long-run strategy will involve fewer humans.
Intelligent Automation is becoming increasingly prevalent in the recruiting and hiring process. LinkedIn leverages artificial intelligence with its Recruiter tool. The Recruiter tool uses algorithms comparable to Netflix’s movie recommendations, but instead recommends job candidates. It allows users to more quickly sort through candidates and easily find individuals with desired experiences and skillsets.
Artificial intelligence algorithms, chatbots, and services such as Recruiter have raised concerns over changing roles in human resources. LinkedIn acknowledges these concerns but emphasizes the ease and efficiency Intelligent Automation allows for. Like Walmart, LinkedIn affirms that automation allows employers and employees to focus their efforts on more impactful work.
Apple recently launched its revolutionary bot Liam, a robotic arm that methodically deconstructs iPhones. Apple designed Liam to reduce the amount of e-waste its products generate. Liam has increased the amount of recycled content incorporated in Apple devices and has simplified the recycling process.
Apple’s Liam is just one of the company’s initiatives to achieve manufacturing automation. Apple aims to open up more highly skilled positions, consequently replacing many traditional blue-collar jobs. CEO Tim Cook acknowledges the loss of manufacturing jobs, but looks to the multitude of service and developmental roles the industry has created around itself. Cook is optimistic about the potential for automation to enable workers to pursue alternative roles such as programming or client services.
While robots have been critical to the success and advancement of many companies, robots have also given rise to significant business challenges. In 2013, Google acquired at least nine robotics companies but has since sold many of them. Return on investment for the majority of Google’s robotics acquisitions, such its four-legged robotic animal project, proved unlikely or extremely distant. Though costly, Google’s hasn’t entirely abandoned its robotics efforts. Google’s investments in autonomous cars and drone delivery projects could prove promising in the long-term.
How can we make sense of all this?
Robotic Process Automation and Intelligent Automation affects the lives of everyday working people. A McKinsey study predicts that by 2030, eight hundred million jobs could be lost to automation. However, automation is not simply a destructive force. As Tim Cook emphasizes, increased mechanization leads to new job creation, redefined roles, and new opportunities for employees to shift careers.
In either case, there is no reason to fear the rise of the “no-collar” class. Competing with these increasingly intelligent bots requires awareness, curiosity, and a desire for life-long learning. To best prepare for the rise of collarless colleagues, one might ask, “How can I add value to my work?”