Relax, robots won’t take your job. Until they do

Posted on 26 Jun 2019 by Edward Pearcey

No matter how you cut the automation cake, the rise of the robots appears unstoppable. On the one hand, automation will not only complement the work of humans, but will also allow us to lead happier lives, cites a new report from The Economist Intelligence Unit. On the other, robots will replace up to 20 million jobs globally by 2030 (almost 9% of the global manufacturing workforce), according to a new study by Oxford Economics.

The majority of senior executives believe that automation is most effective when it complements humans, not replaces them.

While the two reports believe ultimately that automation will be good for the human race, they have very different ideas about what happens in the short term.

The EIU report shows that 79% of senior executives believe that automation is most effective when it complements humans, not replaces them. Moreover, 85% believe automation will enable people to live happier, stress-free lives. And 88% believe automation will accelerate human achievement.

These findings reflect The Manufacturer’s experience with UK manufacturing companies who report that increasing levels of automation have allowed staff to move to more value-added functions within the business.

Automation’s downside – and upside

The Oxford Economics’s outlook is far less optimistic (at least in the short term), estimating that the appearance of each new industrial robot will eradicate 1.6 manufacturing jobs, with those displaced workers finding other sectors (such as construction and office work) also affected by increasing levels of automation, leading to an increasing risk of high unemployment levels.

“This report spells it out clearly: AI and robotics will replace jobs but it importantly has the potential to dramatically improve the quality of workers’ lives, from reducing menial and time consuming tasks to providing greater insight in data driven industries,” said Duncan Tait, CEO, Fujitsu EMEIA.

Moreover, the report from the global forecasting and quantitative analysis company also argues that the increases in productivity prompted by automation will boost the economy. For example, a 30% rise in global robot installations would generate an additional $5trn in global GDP, inevitably leading to the creation of more jobs.

Free the workers

Critical to the process of retaining workers after automation will be strong leadership and vision. Responding to the EIU’s finding, Mark Hughes, Regional Vice President UK & Ireland, Epicor, a global business software company, said, “Today’s findings show that job losses remain a key concern amongst industrial workers when it comes to the increasing pace of automation, so change management will be crucial when it comes to introducing robots, and robotic elements, into our factories.”

“Management must make staff feel like they have a personal and professional stake in the changes being made,” he added, with employees understanding that “automation will free workers from repetitive jobs for higher-value tasks”.

Tait added, “It’s not enough to wait for intelligent machines to replace current workloads. It’s crucial that organisations look at the parts of their business that would benefit most from these machines and consider the human impact, positive and negative. We need to instil a trust in AI in order to help humans do what they do best, not the other way around.”

Automation is not a substitute

Emily Wasik, thought leadership editor at EIU, said, “While the operational benefits of automation – including increased productivity and error reduction – are well-known, the perceived undercutting of the workforce has been a persistent obstacle to adoption.”

“[Our] report shows that executives do not see automation technologies as a substitute for workers. On the contrary, the prevailing view is that automation will accelerate human achievement, increase employee happiness and reduce levels of stress,” she added.

Tate added, “It’s a conversation that business leaders can’t afford to shy away from anymore with automation set to boost economic growth. These technologies will also create new job roles surrounding this AI-centric ecosystem, including maintenance, support and greater creative roles as employees find themselves with more time.”

Education and re-skilling needed

Some of the other major findings of the EIU report include the fact that 91% of respondents are currently using automation technologies; 42% believe that further growth of automation in businesses will depend on providing education and re-skilling opportunities to reduce employee and executive resistance to automation; and 88% believe automation will accelerate human achievement.

“We used to think of robots as the domain of the manufacturing industry, but it’s clear that automation tools are now in widespread operation in businesses across all sectors,” added Emily.

The EIU report, The Advance of Automation, is based on a survey of 502 senior executives in eight countries – including the US, UK, Japan, India and Singapore – and in-depth interviews with four business leaders conducted in May 2019. The executives hold senior roles, half being C-level executives and the other half directors and other senior managers (each representing one of 11 different functions).

Oxford Economics report How robots change the world is available here.