2018: The year of the robot

The robots are coming, but they don’t signal the end of human employment as we know it

We are being routinely bombarded with news that robots will take over the world. Consumers fear they will take away jobs, and businesses face the unprecedented task of strategising how to compete in a new world order, where artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics are changing whole industries.

In reality, the robots are coming, but they don’t signal the end of human employment as we know it. On the contrary, robots offer the promise of new job roles that don’t yet exist.

These new jobs will fuel the economy as people upskill and retrain, as well as jobs created for the operation of the technology behind robotics and AI. By 2030, it is estimated machines and robots could relieve Australian workers of two hours’ worth of the most repetitive manual tasks each week, leading to increased job satisfaction and productivity.

The year 2018 may well be the year of the robot, as businesses embrace the many benefits of applying robotics to automate core business processes, cutting out the rote tasks that make many jobs mundane, unsafe, or inefficient.

Entering the machine age

Since 2000, more than five million U.S. factory jobs have been replaced by automation, and the Committee of Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) has forecast that 40 per cent of Australian jobs won’t exist in 10 to 15 years.

However, this by no means implies that all the people in those jobs will be unemployable or that humans will soon work alongside robots in more efficient and agile companies.

By integrating some of the more repetitive tasks in a business, robots will extend the creative problem-solving abilities that are currently unique to humans, delivering far superior business results.

A survey of more than 500 businesses by Cognizant found a wide variety of organisations from finance, insurance, and healthcare industries are already utilising robots. Through these technologies, humans are attaining new levels of process efficiency, improved operational costs, speed, accuracy and throughput volumes. More than half of all respondents view automation as significantly improving processes over the next 3-5 years.

In short, robots are here to stay. However, people’s jobs will be redefined alongside, enabling them to work more productively and efficiently alongside robots. It will involve a new utilisation of the unique human skills of creativity, emotional intelligence, empathy, critical thinking, and human touch — skills that robots don’t yet possess.

Achieving a human-robotic balance

In order to optimise the software sophistications, money-saving benefits, and data-collective abilities of robots, it’s essential that businesses create a symbiosis between employees and robot counterparts.

Within telecommunications, for example, we are already seeing roles such as call centre customer assistance operators being automated, with human contact only being at the escalation level of a call, where critical thinking and analytical decision-making skills are required.

In the U.S., H&R Block is already using automation for the data-driven aspects of tax preparation, while in the legal industry, robots look poised to take over the more repetitive tasks undertaken by paralegals.

However, these robots are automating repetitive roles, complementing existing businesses, leaving the pathway open for humans to redefine their roles. The opportunity is vast to redefine skills, allowing people to be involved in people skills, such as complex human relationship roles such as nursing or therapy-related jobs, as well as for trade roles where people deliver a service in other people’s homes, such as plumbers, electricians and builders.

Embracing the new machine

A Google report says that Australia is lagging behind the rest of the world when it comes to automation, at about half the rate of its international counterparts. To remain competitive and realise the productivity growth already occurring elsewhere, Australian businesses must use 2018 to mark the beginning of their robot strategy and planning.

The process may seem daunting, but it needn’t be. Identifying the areas of a business that are ripe for automation involves giving existing employees digital tools and devices to help them do their jobs better, followed by a close examination of process-driven structures that can plausibly be completed without human intervention.

Integrating automation will lead to an explosion of rich process-level data, and applying analytics to deconstruct that data will lead to massive business advantages in cost savings and improved efficiencies.

In order to remain competitive in a fast-moving global market, and keep employees reassured in times of change, Australia needs to embrace automated productivity whilst simultaneously ensuring its human workers are reskilled and adaptable.

The benefits from AI will be enhanced when businesses recognise the skills and experience of their workforce and build on that to create a viable, profitable and competitive relationship between their employees and robots.

Benjamin Pring is director of Cognizant’s Centre for the Future of Work, co-author of ‘What to Do When Machines Do Everything: How to Get Ahead in a World of AI, Algorithms, Bots, and Big Data’

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