Every week there’s a story in a tabloid newspaper that contains the phrase ‘rise of the robots’. Journalists trot out shock headlines like ‘robot job invasion’ and ‘robots will destroy our jobs’ as if this is something society should, and can, prevent.

Does a perfect storm of cloud, AI, mobile, IoT, chatbots and machine learning being applied to business processes mean jobs are really at risk from automation? Or is this merely the latest chapter in a story about a skills shortage in an increasingly information-based society?

From shop floor to office

Robotics already dominate the shop floors of car plants and industrial facilities; this next wave of automation is about the office. “It differs from the previous purely mechanical and industrial wave in that it is powered by data and our ability to analyse with more powerful techniques,” says Ian Hughes, Analyst, Internet of Things, 451 Research, who thinks that now the dangerous jobs have been given to robots, it’s time to automate mundane tasks. “Whether it’s software or hardware, these are advanced tools best suited to assist us and let us move on to more interesting things.”

So it’s not really about unskilled labour at all. “A better starting point is to view AI as a way of dealing with predictable, non-personal work, where lots of data exists,” says Matt Jones, Analytics Strategist at Tessella, explaining that this helps us understand its potential impact not only in manufacturing, but also on legal research, drilling for commodities, and even diagnosing diseases. “AI will affect different industries in very different ways,” he observes.

Robots already rule manufacturing (Image Credit: Thyssenkrupp)

Who will be impacted?

“The reality of AI’s impact is somewhat different to what we have been reading about in the papers,” says Harrick Vin, VP and Chief Scientist at Tata Consultancy Service, whose Global Trends Study of 835 decision makers in 13 different industry sectors found that 84% view AI as ‘essential’. And that’s particularly the case in Europe and North America, where the average spend has hit around $80 million (around £65 million, AU$105 million) per region over recent years.

“The opportunities and challenges this technology presents are still not yet fully understood, but what is clear is the impact is going to be big,” says Vin. “From Apple investing in face recognition through Emotient, to Shell, the oil and gas giant, launching an online virtual assistant to respond to customer enquiries, there are already major investments – and belief – in AI.”

However, this isn’t just from IT departments. “Despite 68% of companies using AI for IT functions, by 2020, 70% believe AI’s greatest impact will be in admin, back office, sales, marketing and finance.”

Which industries will change most?

Some jobs could disappear almost completely. “Jobs in call centres, routine machine operation and stock taking are probably not long for this world,” says Jones. “Industries like manufacturing will indeed be heavily affected at the lower skilled end.”

However, he thinks that industries already accustomed to automation will actually be better prepared for the effects of AI. “Perhaps a bigger shock will come to industries that rely heavily on manually collecting, processing and interpreting data, tasks that have long relied on highly paid, highly skilled people,” he says, which means the end of report writing jobs in legal, accountancy, finance, insurance and management consultancy industries.

Does that means horrendous job losses in white collar businesses? Not necessarily – this is about eliminating the lower value work that clients hate paying for, so staff can concentrate on higher value tasks. “Whether this means companies deliver more value for less, or employ fewer people, will depend on how they approach this new world,” says Jones.

Folks aren’t likely to be clamouring for robot judges

Which industries will change least?

Not only will jobs that rely solely on human interaction not change, but there will doubtless be a renaissance if automation is pushed too far.

“Highly emotive experiences – training, counselling, medical advice, restaurant service – will probably never be delivered predominantly by AI, even if they become technically possible,” says Jones. “Equally, situations requiring human judgement or empathy, from managing a team, to deciding a court case, to operating a bulldozer, will need humans for the foreseeable future.”

Routine tasks are already being automated at call centres (Image Credit: Plantronics)

How call centres will change

Advances in Natural Language Processing (NLP) are set to allow AI-driven voice activation to transform call centres. “There is a rush to automate customer services which is drastically changing the way people work, not just by reducing the number of people, but by the type of person,” says Simon Sear, practice lead at strategic design consultancy BJSS Sparck.

AI bots will learn from mistakes, so the tasks that are left to humans to solve will get more and more complex. “As more becomes automated and the exceptions become extremely complex the service analyst needs to become more skilled, empowered – and inevitably better paid,” Sear notes.

Call centre staff will be fewer, and work more like analysts and IT staff – Gartner predicts that by 2019 more than 10% of IT hires in customer service will mostly write scripts for chatbots.

ADVERTISING

Don’t overestimate chatbots

Total workload will decline in call centres, but there are limits. “Bots are still poor at being general-purpose helpers, and frequently misunderstand or totally fail to understand human intent,” says Rurik Bradbury, Global Head of Research at LivePerson. “Think of bots as specialists in certain tasks – ones that are simple, predictable, easy to automate.” Bots will only take over routine processes, replacing tasks, not jobs.

Besides, the modern call centre won’t just handle calls. “The hybrid partnership of AI and humans is that by its very nature it is multi-channel, meaning we’ll see the call centre evolve into more of a customer interaction centre,” thinks Paul Briault, Digital Security, Identity and API Management Director at CA Technologies.

Dangerous jobs, such as on oil rigs, are being replaced via automation (Image Credit: Apache)

Do businesses need a Chief Automation Officer?

Automation and AI will change industries; it’s just a case of making sure everyone in a business knows what’s going on. That’s according to Capita Resourcing’s new Workplace More Human report, which found that while 91% of businesses consider automation to be an opportunity rather than a risk, two-thirds of employees fear that the rise of robotics will make the workplace less sociable and friendly.

“It is vital that organisations clearly communicate what their automated business would look like with their employees,” says Jo Matkin, Managing Director of Capita Resourcing, who thinks that communication should cover how automation impacts their role, workplace and the possible benefits it will bring – such as up-skilling or freeing up employee time to focus on more creative, less menial activities.

She also thinks that organisations themselves need a clearer understanding of their automation strategy and its potential impact. “Appointing a dedicated Chief Automation Officer (CAO) could be a solution and invaluable addition to driving your organisation’s competitive advantage in an increasingly automated world,” she says.

Automated software has been used in aviation for decades (Image Credit: Airbus)

Rosy outlook for IT sector

Automation may be everywhere, but a future made of technology will require the support of CIOs and IT teams.

“It’s hard to deny that even the most sophisticated robot is a simple and expensive pile of parts without a legion of highly-skilled humans to design, program and repair it,” says Steve Weston, Chief Information Officer at Hays, who thinks there will be a surge in the demand for robot programmers and machine learning engineers.

Ultimately, the market will decide on the impact of AI and automation. It could even create jobs. “Entrepreneurs will harness AI to create all sorts of new businesses, many not yet conceived, which will create, change and replace existing job roles,” says Jones.

Research by Infosys found that 80% of AI adopters who have replaced, or plan to replace, workers with technology, will retain, retrain and up-skill those impacted. Besides, if the automation revolution is judged to have gone too far, it will shrink. “If AI increases the world’s wealth and free time, there may be more demand for new services for which people – saddened by the decline of human interaction – will pay a premium to have delivered by humans,” says Jones.

Far from surgically removing jobs and livelihoods, AI and automation is just the latest salvo in a technological revolution that has been going on since the dawn of time, and it has another name: progress

Advertisements