The Rise of the “No-Collar” Class

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.

US-SCIENCE-DARPA ROBOTICS

A friendly Pepper bot

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.

Uber

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.

Tweet_Kalanick

Only two years later, self-driving Uber cars deployed in Pittsburgh.

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

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.

 

LinkedIn

Linkedin

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

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.

Liam arm

Apple’s iPhone recycling robot, Liam

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.

Google

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.

Jobs_Graph

5.7 million blue-collar jobs cut. Manufacturing output soars.

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?”

11 thoughts on “The Rise of the “No-Collar” Class

  1. Very interesting, thorough analysis of the “no collar” class! I recently had a discussion in my PULSE class about the downsides of automation and AI, particularly for manufacturing jobs. I think you capture that sentiment well while also recognizing the inevitability of technological innovation and the undeniable benefits of RPA and IA. I agree that this is an issue that could change the work landscape in the coming years — it will become increasingly important to constantly add value to yourself and your work to keep up!

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  2. It is fascinating thinking about potential economic implications of the rise of this “no-collar class.” While automation clearly has the capacity to eliminate jobs and create unemployment, there is definitely an argument that roles in the workplace are just being redefined by automation, rather than completely lost, so I am interested to see how this plays out over the coming years!

    Amazon is another company that has found success through the use of robots in their warehouses. Though this decreased the number of jobs in the warehouses, the company still managed to increase employment by 40% last year, which is interesting.

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  3. Hi Amy, thanks for your post! In all honesty, this blog put me a little more at ease, as the thought of increased automation taking over many jobs is both daunting and scary! I agree that as technology evolves and time goes on it will be imperative for humans to be able to adapt and become flexible, as their roles may change and they might have to shift their responsibilities. This can certainly be looked at as an exciting modification to many industries in the future.

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  4. Great post, Amy! A few months ago I was doing a mock interview with an employee at Gartner, and he kept talking about the increasingly large skills gap that we will see in the next few years, especially with the automation of many mundane processes. I completely agree, there is no reason to fear the “no-collar’ class, rather you need to be prepared by continuously having transferrable knowledge as the job market shifts to highly skilled human capital. I loved reading about the adoption of robots in Silicon Valley, I think it will lend to great talking points during our visit and unique considerations for the future.

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    • Really enjoyed your post professor. Changing how organizations manage talent is going to be a highly time consuming task and to me it’s up in the air if the behemoth organizations of today like Oracle and GE are going to be able to be nimble enough to pirouette on how their businesses have ‘always done things’…it’s going to be really interesting to look back on this time in 20 years. Adapt or die.

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  5. Thanks for the informative post! The book I read over break, Platform Revolution, alluded to the future challenges that our society will face with respect to the disruptive technologies that you mentioned. As a current college student, one of the things I’m curious about is how education systems will adapt to the shifting demands in the workplace. This post will definitely be a great conversation starter for class and for our visits.

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  6. Amy, this was an incredible post and an extremely relevant topic that is constantly on the minds of business employees in our modern world. I particularly was fascinated by Uber’s and Apple’s usage of robotics. I think UberEats is on to something, and I can totally see future delivery systems run by a system of robots without the need for humans. I’m also very glad to hear that Apple is using robotics for a worthy cause, as Liam helps to make sure that material used in iPhones are preserved & recycled properly. Great work!

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  7. Great post Amy! It’s amazing to see an examination of artificial intelligence that goes beyond augmented reality and driverless vehicles. This also partly connects to Kipp and JB’s posts on social responsibility, as these various companies are clearly looking to improve society through their innovations. Lastly, your point on artificial intelligence’s safety is a classic debate – I personally think that it should be restricted to a certain level of development before becoming more intelligent than us. I’m excited to see where it goes, though!

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  8. Really clever post! So many discussions of the future of work are purely theoretical, and you maintained a great balance between theory and what is actually happening in the industry. After reading about all these helpful and practical applications of robotics and AI, developing robots like Pepper seems exceedingly pointless. It’s clear that robots will never be able to replace the emotive characteristics of humans, so why not focus on areas that robots can automate, such as repetitive tasks, and leave the emotions to humans?
    Vox is putting out a great series on the future of work. Check out this video about how nursing is one industry that will not be harmed by automation: https://www.facebook.com/Vox/videos/798234703697467/

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  9. The larger question that automation poses is what is going to be the value of human workers in a world where manual labor is both cheaper and more efficient when done by machines. Already now in classes at Boston College, you can take classes which discuss how machines are better at data analysis and in blogs, you can read about Ray Dalio and Bridgewater valuing quantitative algorithm metrics over human input. Ultimately, it will be up to humans to decide what to actually do with the information that machines churn out. People will need to go from being managers to being leaders, able to understand outputs and provide insight/business decisions based off of that. Perfect post, highlighting the ways machines are proliferating through our lives already. Excited to see what the future holds.

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