The rate of technological progress is increasing exponentially. As we look at the advent of the fourth industrial revolution—a main hallmark being the proliferation of robots, automated processes and artificial intelligence (AI)—the future of the way we live and work has become something of an unknown quantity.
Just how that future plays out in the workplace is the subject of conflicting opinion. On one side, organizations hope that workers will embrace their new robot colleagues and that those “co-bots” will increase productivity and free up employees to engage in more creative tasks. On the other, there’s a strong contingent of anxious workers who worry that machines will take their jobs, rendering human staff passé. Both factions have valid points.
THREAT OF THE UNKNOWN
Those at the lower end of the skill and education spectrum might be at greater risk; a 2016 study from the World Bank predicts that in developing nations, about two-thirds of jobs are in danger of being replaced by automation. A McKinsey Global Institute report, however, found that positions will not necessarily be replaced wholesale by machines, but instead up to 45 percent of activities that people perform in those positions could be automated. Viewed in this light, it’s clear that robots and AI are primed to take over a proportion of jobs, from hourly positions to those in the C-suite, and that everyone must be prepared to work alongside co-bots.
Does that mean some positions will be eliminated on a large scale? It is quite possible, if not probable, that we will see it happen again as technology rapidly progresses. The current wave of technology will augment jobs and allow people to open up possibilities to better types of jobs.
Some robots, for instance, need trained operators, which will require workers in higher-paying STEM positions. Not only will increased automation allow for the creation and fulfillment of better jobs for people in these cases, but it will also save workers from “bad” jobs—those that are boring or, worse, unsafe. Many robots are designed to take over dangerous or repetitive tasks, allowing employees to enjoy safer, more meaningful work.
MAINTAINING THE ‘HUMAN TOUCH’
The world of robotics will continue to evolve, yet some tasks and roles will remain uniquely human. And increasing acceptance of technology—including robotics—will undoubtedly lead to progress. But at what cost? At Sodexo’s Quality of Life Conference 2015, Michel Landel, CEO, Director and Chairman of the Executive Committee of Sodexo, reminded us that “the goal of progress should be to preserve the essence of what it means to be human and to be of greater benefit to humanity. New technologies should be an additional opportunity to care for one another; they should be the engine for inclusion, and this kind of progress—human rather than dehumanized—sets out to respect basic principles.”
With the movement toward co-bots, companies are experimenting with how robots can collaborate with humans. Rather than completely taking over work tasks, technology can complement and augment human capabilities, opening up possibilities for exciting new work and ways of working.
Machines won’t be taking over the workplace entirely—at least not for the foreseeable future. A recently updated guide to robotics in the United States reveals that even in this age of burgeoning work robots, 600,000 jobs have been added in manufacturing in the past half-dozen years. And large industries won’t be the only ones enjoying the benefits of robotic help, small and medium-size enterprises (SMEs), ranging from dairy farms in New York to logistics companies in Germany to injection molding companies in Minnesota, are deploying robots to fill worker shortages and enhance productivity.
All organizations must address the challenges that automation, AI and robotics present to their workforce and help human employees embrace their new co-bot colleagues. Businesses will benefit from carefully considered adoption and use of technology in the workplace. Instead of wholesale personnel downsizing, employers have a responsibility to train and develop their people, retraining as appropriate to empower workers to take on new and different roles.