Sci-fi writers have been warning us about the coming of the singularity for a decade now. And while we’re some years away from having to contemplate such a future, AI, machine learning, big data and other technologies are developing at a pace which is already beginning to impact the global workforce.
I chatted to some experts on the subject for an upcoming feature to find out whether CIOs should be terrified or enthused by the prospect of robot workers.
The truth is that they’re already here, in many heavy industries like tech manufacturing. In May this year a local government official in the Chinese district of Kunshan announced contract manufacturing giant Foxconn was reducing “employee strength” from 110,000 to 50,000 workers, because of investments in robots. But what about when they spread into other industries? As far back as 2014, Gartner was predicting that as many as one in three jobs will be “converted to software, robots and smart machines by 2025” as software advances mean technology systems begin to replace cognitive tasks as well as factory jobs.
Meanwhile, a report from the Bank of England last year estimated up to 15 million UK jobs could be at risk of automation in the future. And a Deloitte/Oxford University study in January claimed 35% of today’s jobs have a “high chance” of being automated in the next 10-20 years.
For IHS Markit analyst, Wilmer Zhou, the coming robot hordes represent both a challenge and an opportunity to employers. Aside from manufacturing, he picked out several industries where jobs are potentially most at risk, including agriculture, logistics, and specialist domestic care. Most surprising for me was healthcare.
“It’s one of the industries with relatively high robot deployment such as surgical robots,” he told me via email. “IHS forecasts that robots in the medical industry will be one of the fastest growth sectors, with the decreasing of the average sale price of surgical robots and expansion of medical operation tasks.”
For CIOs looking to maximise the potential offered by these new automated workers, it will be important to create trust in the bots, argued Forrester principal analyst, Craig Le Clair.
“Cognitive systems can end up learning undesirable behavior from a weak training script or a bad customer experience. So build ‘airbags’ into the process,” he told me.
“Assess the level of trust required for your customer to release their financial details. Get compliance and legal colleagues on board as early as possible. Cognitive applications affect compliance in positive and negative ways. Be prepared to leverage the machines ability to explain recommendations in an understandable manner.”
Also important is to foster human and machine collaboration wherever possible, to reduce friction between the two.
“Rethink talent acquisition and your workplace vision,” Le Clair explained. “Some 78% of automation technologists foresee a mismatch of skill sets between today’s workers and the human/machine future, with the largest gaps in data, analytics, and cognitive skills.”
The bottom line is that robots and AI are here to stay. Whether they’ll have a net positive or negative impact on the workplace is up for discussion, but it may well hinge on how many so-called ‘higher value’ roles there are for humans to move into once they’ve been displaced by silicon.
News emerged a few days ago that Foxconn had effectively laid off 60,000 workers in China and replaced them with robots. “So what?” you might think. And to be honest, if it keeps the cost of our tech devices down, then good for Foxconn, right? Well, unfortunately it’s not that simple.
The changing dynamics of the Chinese labour market could have a profound effect on us here in the West, and even portend similar disruption to our own workforce in the not-too-distant future.
These stories have been doing the rounds for years because – well – contract manufacturers like Foxconn and others have been investing significant sums into robotics for years. Why? The answer’s pretty simple, according to IHS analyst, Alex West.
“Robots don’t need to stop working, but they don’t get drowsy, distracted or depressed either, so quality and consistency of manufacturing is enhanced. With the developments in AI and predictive analytics, robots are also far less likely to get ‘sick’, reducing downtime,” he told me.
To that I’d add that they don’t go on strike, commit suicide or complain to the papers about poor working conditions – all problems Foxconn for one has encountered. But robots can also add value in other ways, such as helping firms win business from their rivals, according to West.
“Robots are evolving, becoming more intelligent as AI solutions help them to ‘learn’ on the job, but also becoming far easier to program and integrate on production lines,” he continued. “Collaborative robots are also making robotic solutions safer and easier to install without the additional safety concerns and equipment.”
There’s clearly a drive for this in China, the tech manufacturing centre of the world. The Chinese government has made investment in robotics a priority in its 13th Five-Year Plan, with IHS forecasting a 30% CAGR. But this threatens to create social instability as human workers are shelved in favour of machines. Foxconn and others claim bots are only used for repetitive tasks that humans don’t want anyway. But there’s no guarantee that there are enough skilled roles to fill the gap.
“Dull, repetitive jobs on the plant floor will be replaced by a range of higher-skilled positions such as robot/systems integrators, programmers, and data scientists supporting enhanced AI,” argued West.
“However, there will be less of these more advanced roles, and some of the type that existing workers will not have the skillsets to be able to transition to.”
This might seem a long way from the UK. But our workforce is also facing a robot invasion – not from these industrial bots, but service robots like Softbanks’ Pizza Hut-serving Pepper. In fact, a Deloitte study has claimed that 35% of UK jobs have a high chance of being automated in the next decade or two.
Robots still only account for 0.3% of all machinery produced in China last year, according to West, so there’s still a long way to go. But it’s probably time to start getting nervous in the UK.