The International Federation of Robotics said recently that in manufacturing there are now 74 robot units per 10,000 employees on average, compared to 66 units in 2015. The highest growth rate is in Asia, China in particular.
And software automation, informed by machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI), will have a profound effect on our workplaces and the jobs we do.
“AI is a big threat to low-skilled jobs, no question,” says Bernard Louvat, general manager of digital customer engagement solutions at tech firm Nuance. “I don’t think we’re ready to handle this problem yet.” He thinks clever chatbots will replace most call centre staff within 10 years.
“A virtual assistant can handle 60%-80% of all customer conversations now without any need for a human agent to intervene – five years ago it would have been 25%-30%,” he says. “Chatbots are certainly eliminating jobs – we need fewer and fewer human agents each year. The ones that are left will be highly skilled super-agents looking after the most complicated cases.”
Research firm Gartner predicts that by 2020, 85% of questions will be answered by virtual assistants.
With huge telecoms company like AT&T employing around 100,000 call centre agents to look after its 120 million customers, that’s a lot of jobs that could disappear pretty quickly. Cost-savings are just too big for large corporations to ignore and customer satisfaction increases as these chatbots learn from the millions of previous customer conversations and become smarter, they say.
It is not the first time the world has had to adapt to new changes in the way we work and do business. Industrialisation and new inventions and technology in the past have influenced and changed the way we work today. Machines from steam engines to telephones, cars to computers and more have all impacted the way we live today. What poses the greatest challenge for jobs today is the unprecedented pace of technological change in the modern era.
The automated trading of trillions of dollars of assets in financial markets is dictated by algorithms. AI chatbots taking over in call centres and soon cars and planes operating autonomously all put the jobs and livelihoods of humans at risk. With new technologies like blockchain, some have estimated as many as a million jobs in financial services may be at risk.
In our factories, we have seen robots operating for decades, mainly on repetitive drudge work, but things are moving fast. They can use image recognition to pick out unripe or damaged fruit from high speed sorting machines, flip burgers. They can lay bricks and we now have giant 3D printing machines that can make houses out of concrete in a fraction of the time humans can. One company is experimenting with 48hr houses and hoping to bring the timeframe down to 12 to 24 hours to complete a house. These are small single room, single floor structures right now but the potential to expand that is huge.
Consultancy Accenture says 81% of executives it interviewed think that within two years AI will be working next to humans in their organisation as “a co-worker, collaborator and trusted adviser”.
Recently, a report by the McKinsey Global institute concluded that nearly two thirds of all jobs could see at least 30% of their activities automated by 2030. That could affect 800 million roles, it said. However, they went on to say, it “will also create new occupations that do not exist today, much as technologies in the past have done”.
During the Industrial Revolution from the late 17th Century onwards, mechanisation swept through many industries. In particular, farming which accounted for around 50% of all jobs across Europe dwindled to less than 5% now. New types of employment came along eventually but the human cost of changes like these were undoubtedly painful for those unable to adapt.
The global economy has seen seismic changes over the last 30 years – the digital transformation, the rise of the internet, globalisation. However, figures from the World Bank show that global unemployment as a percentage of total labour force has actually fallen from 6.1% in 1991 to 5.8% in 2017, despite the population rising from 5.4 billion to 7.6 billion over the same period.
Robotic process automation – RPA – will remove the need for staff to do boring, repetitive, rules-based activities, such as inputting data or handling payroll, tech optimists say.
“This is an evolution of work – the type of work we do will change,” says Ian Barkin, co-founder of Symphony Ventures, an RPA specialist with clients such as Lloyds Banking Group and US payroll giant ADP.
“RPA doesn’t have to lead to a culling of staff, it can empower them and unleash their creativity. It’s freeing them from doing the unproductive stuff.”
Mary McDowell, chief executive of video-conferencing provider Polycom, said recently, “The management of sound and video will be so much better. Participants will feel like they’re actually present and augmented reality will help us collaborate and annotate documents much more productively.”
“Meetings will be about the ideas, not the mechanics. Without technical barriers, we can focus on the work at hand, whether that’s providing telemedicine or distance learning services,” she said.
Mary McDowell sees a time where AI will effectively run virtual meetings for us, using facial recognition to identify who’s speaking and calling up relevant documents and statistics to support points being made.
But even the optimists admit that as low-skilled jobs disappear, people will need to learn new skills to compensate.
“This calls on us all to focus on up-skilling,” says Mr Barkin. “There’s an urgent need for education reform – people need to learn design thinking, creativity, analytics, programming.
Research by job site Indeed finds that in the last three years demand from UK employers for AI specialists has almost tripled.
“Technology can lead to job reductions, but it doesn’t have to. This could be a huge good news story,” concludes Mr Barkin.
It seems we must all adapt going forward. Those who embrace new technology with optimism and tailor their skills to fit may be the best placed for a future world.