PENNY FOR ITS THOUGHTS - JSE MAGAZINE

PENNY FOR ITS THOUGHTS

They’re cheap, efficient and becoming increasingly sophisticated. Soon they will be able to take over white-collar jobs. So how does a smart business incorporate robots into its operations?

PENNY FOR ITS THOUGHTS

Science-fiction movies have been telling us for years: if you want a job done right, hire a robot. Whether you are in the market for a RoboCop-like police officer, a Stepford Wives spouse or a Terminator-esque time-travelling assassin, nothing gets the job done quite as well as an intelligent machine.

Even the classic sci-fi horror Alien had a resident robot – although (spoiler alert – for the middle of the movie and for the end of this article) the android science officer in that film was not particularly popular among its colleagues, and it did end up getting its head knocked off halfway through the story.

Real-life robots haven’t been too far behind, though. Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, machines have sewed our clothes, done the grunt work on assembly lines in our factories, and – through modern military drone strikes – attacked our enemies.

Machines have been a highly useful part of the labour force. Until very recently, however, they’ve tended to take care of mundane tasks such as – to pick some very simple examples – spray-painting cars, stirring massive vats of fruit juice, tightening the lids on tomato sauce bottles and knitting pairs of stockings.

Stockings, in fact, were behind one of the earliest machine-related labour crises. In 1779, a young English textile worker named Ned Ludd lost his job to a machine. He responded – so legend has it – by violently destroying two of those newfangled stocking frames and, in the process, launching a doomed revolt against machines’ labour-econo-mising technologies.

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Ned and his Luddite followers have since become a footnote in the history of the Industrial Revolution, dismissed for their futile attempts to stop the automated wheels of progress.

After all, it’s only the most basic of blue-collar work that’s ever been at risk from machines. The idea of robots creeping in and taking over white-collar jobs is and has been (cue that sci-fi theme music) nothing but futuristic fantasy.

At least, those are the words – ‘futuristic fantasy’ – that 60% of the chief executives in Gartner’s 2013 CEO Survey chose to describe the suggestion that smart machines would be capable of absorbing millions of middle-class jobs any time within the next 15 years. But the IT research and advisory firm insists that this impending robotic revolution is very much a reality. And, Gartner warns, when it happens, those CEOs won’t see it coming.

‘Most business and thought leaders under-estimate the potential of smart machines to take over millions of middle-class jobs in the coming decades,’ Gartner research director at Gartner Kenneth Brant told the 2013 Gartner Symposium/ITxpo in Orlando, Florida.

‘Job destruction will happen at a faster pace, with machine-driven job elimination overwhelming the market’s ability to create valuable new ones.’ Gartner’s researchers found that machines are evolving from automating basic tasks to becoming advanced self-learning systems that are just as capable as the human brain in many highly specialised professions.

‘As such, the next wave of job losses will likely occur among highly valued specialists during the next decade,’ the firm said in a company statement.

‘The bottom line is that many CEOs are missing what could quickly develop to be the most significant technology shift of this decade,’ said Brant.

‘In fact, even today, there is already a multifaceted marketplace for engineering a “digital workforce”, backed by major players on both the supply and demand side. This marketplace comprises intelligent agents, virtual reality assistants, expert systems and embedded software to make traditional machines “smart” in a very specialised way, plus a new generation of low-cost and easy-to-train robots and purpose-built automated machines that could significantly devalue and/or displace millions of humans in the workforce.’

That supply/demand economic model is key to Gartner’s claims.

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The firm’s analysts insist that as long as the global economy continues to suffer weak revenue growth, there will be an ever-increasing demand for cost reduction and productivity improvement. And the obvious solution is to start employing smart machines instead of humans.

‘It’s worth remembering that IT cost is typically about 4% of annual revenue, whereas the labour costs that can be rationalised by smart machines are as high as 40% of revenue in some knowledge and service industries,’ said Brant.

‘The supply side of the market – including IBM, GE, Google, Microsoft, Apple and Amazon – is placing large bets on the success of smart machines, while the demand side includes high-profile first movers that will trigger an “arms race” for acquiring and/or developing smart machines.’

So are robots coming to take your job? The simple answer is … probably. And it’s not just blue-collar workers and manual labourers whose jobs are on line. According to Jerry Kaplan, white- collar workers are just as much at risk.

The author of Humans Need Not Apply: A Guide to Wealth and Work in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, told Tech Insider that anybody whose job includes ‘repetitive and structured’ tasks could soon face robotic redundancy.

‘Even for what you think of as highly-trained, highly-skilled, intuitive personable professions, it is still true that the vast majority of the work is routine,’ he said. Take the whitest of white-collar workers: lawyers. Despite what you’ve seen on TV, legal jobs are, for the most part, incredibly tedious and repetitive.

‘The vast majority of activities that lawyers are engaged in are straightforward drafting of contracts, putting together things like apartment leases, real estate deals, pre-trial discovery. It’s these very tasks that make the profession susceptible to automation.

‘Profession by profession, the tasks that people are performing that are routine, structured and susceptible to computerisation – those are the tasks that are going away and as a result many, many fewer people or practitioners are needed in those professions.’

If Ned Ludd were alive today, he might not struggle to find legal representation. As science fiction turns into everyday reality, robots are affecting all imaginable sectors of the job economy.

‘Historically what we thought was that robots would do things that were the three Ds: dangerous, dirty and dull,’ Ryan Calo, a professor at the University of Washington School of Law and robotics expert, told Business Insider earlier this year.

‘Over time, the range of things that robots can do has extended.’

In actual fact, it has extended so far that, according to a new report from independent technology and market research company Forrester Research, automation will erase 22.7 million US jobs by 2025, or 16% of the current total.

Forrester based its research on studies of large companies (including Delta Airlines and Whole Foods Market) and start-ups in various industries, with findings drawn from US government employment data, as well as interviews with academics and business leaders.

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‘Labour costs that can be rationalised by smart machines are as high as 40%
of revenue in some industries’

KENNETH BRANT, RESEARCH DIRECTOR, GARTNER

Titled the Future of Jobs, 2025: Working Side-By-Side with Robots, the report argues that while automation will cause a decline in service jobs, it will also create new ones, leading to a net loss of just 9.1 million.

‘Physical robots require repair and maintenance professionals – one of several job categories that will grow up around a more automated world,’ lead study author JP Gownder wrote on the research company’s website.

‘That is a net loss of 7%: far fewer than most forecasts, though still a significant job loss number.’

The report examined three types of job-replacing technologies: those that automate physical tasks (robotics); those that automate intellectual tasks (cognitive computing); and those that automate customer service tasks (everything from self-help kiosks to grocery store scanners).

‘While these technologies are both real and important, and some jobs will disappear because of them, the future of jobs overall isn’t nearly as gloomy as many prognosticators believe,’ the report claims. ‘In reality, automation will spur the growth of many new jobs – including some entirely new job categories. But the largest effect will be job transformation. Humans will find themselves working side-by-side with robots.’

Which poses the question: how will humans welcome their new robotic co-workers? A hitch-hiking robot may hold some clues.

Last year, Canadian researchers built hitchBOT, a robot that – as the name suggests – hitchhiked across Canada and in Europe as part of a social experiment. The robot had built-in GPS, Wellington boots and gardening gloves, and it became a social media sensation. As it wasn’t able to walk, hitchBOT completed its journeys by asking to be carried by those who stopped to give it a lift.

‘Our experience shows that when left to decide what to do with a robot, people not only embrace it but creatively integrate it into their lives,’ hitchBOT creators Frauke Zeller and David Harris Smith of Ryerson and McMaster universities respectively wrote in Harvard Business Review last December.

‘Therefore, it should be the workers first and foremost who tell businesses what kind of co-workers robots could be. This doesn’t only foster a better acceptance of future robot co-workers, but also resonates well with long-standing approaches in organisational management.

‘Employee knowledge is one of the most important resources of any organisation. Let it guide the role that social robots play at work.’

In a somewhat sad – yet revealing – twist, the hitchBOT experiment ended in August 2015. Just two weeks into its trip across the US, hitchBOT was attacked, mugged and decapitated.

As the research team reported on its website: ‘Unfortunately, hitchBOT was vandalised overnight in Philadelphia. Sometimes bad things happen to good robots.’ Given that hitchBOT had a built-in camera, it is safe to assume that, somewhere in Philadelphia, a modern-day Ned Ludd is currently looking to hire a lawyer.

By Will Sinclair
Image: Andreas Eiselen/HSMimages