Call it a quiet revolution. Walk into a neighborhood CaliBurger, and you might see Flippy, a robot that turns the burgers and cleans hot, greasy grills in most of the Seattle-based company’s 50 fast-food restaurants.
Visit an Amazon warehouse, and you will find robots scurrying about the floors with goods bound for delivery, working alongside employees and other robotized machines that lift and stack bins.
And the next time you have a doctor’s appointment, don’t be surprised if your vitals are taken by a tongue depressor and a wearable, helping a single employee care for multiple patients at once.
Automation is everywhere, and its penetration and sophistication are increasing. Artificial intelligence is expected to greatly expand the ability of robots and automated systems to learn, combine work functions and think outside the box.
Robotics and cognitive technologies are continuing to supplant a growing number of routine business functions that previously were handled by humans—including knowledge-worker tasks that many assumed would remain the domain of human beings for the foreseeable future.
Business leaders expect that 17 percent of work will be automated by 2020, according to the 2017 Global Future of Work Survey report from Willis Towers Watson. That’s up from about 9 percent of work that was being done using robotic and artificial intelligence last year and 5 percent three years ago.
For example, at many organizations, highly automated systems provide employees with financial planning advice that once was available to only the largest employers using wealth management firms with hundreds of advisors. And software bots and sophisticated algorithms are making it much easier for recruiters to source and screen job candidates, a function formerly performed solely by very human HR employees.
About half the company leaders surveyed said they will require fewer employees by 2020 because of automation, compared with just over a quarter who said that was the case in 2017.
Leading high-tech companies are driving the accelerating pace of automation, pushing remarkable advances in product and service offerings—and especially in customer service.
“ ‘Born digital’ companies like Amazon and Lyft continue to raise consumer expectations across all industries,” says Lisa Buckingham, executive vice president and chief people, place and brand officer at Lincoln Financial Group. To be competitive, she says, today’s businesses need to provide a blend of digital and human services. “Consumers want simple, transparent solutions provided by credible, customer-focused providers.”
Historically, automation has involved using machines to replace inefficient, repetitive and risky aspects of jobs and enhancing the functions that remained in human hands with technology.
Automation’s power to transform economic sectors is nothing new: Decades ago, telephone technology, the Internet and more-powerful computers decimated the ranks of clerks, receptionists and many intermediary professions, such as travel agents.
Some industries, such as manufacturing, have been highly automated for years. Assembly lines use vastly fewer humans than in the past, and plants that lack extensive automation are simply not competitive.
In the retail sector, competition by highly automated Internet-based businesses like Amazon has compelled most sellers to create an online presence. Robots are used to manage inventory and process orders. In stores, supermarkets and restaurants, kiosks and sensors are increasingly replacing, or optimizing the use of, the remaining human talent.
Other sectors—such as finance, banking and insurance—are currently in the throes of rapid automation. Advances have included ATMs that handle simple financial transactions and website portals that moved the customer experience online.
“For the longest time, large areas of these financial industries were shielded from automation by regulations, but they are now leapfrogging into it” as the rules are eased and technology advances, says John Boudreau, a University of Southern California professor of management and organization and co-author of Reinventing Jobs: A Four-Step Approach for Applying Automation to Work (Harvard Business Review Press, 2018).
Three Types of Automation
Robotic Process Automation
Automates high-volume, low-complexity, routine administrative white-collar tasks.
Example: Delivery tracking.
Despite its disruptive power, automation often has drawn relatively little attention. That’s because its progression generally has been a slow, iterative process.
“Automation is an ongoing evolution at Lincoln,” Buckingham says.
The company’s focus on consumer service drives that process. A “click to contribute” button on its website invites plan participants to increase their retirement contributions. Advanced electronic image-scanning technology, automated underwriting and web-chat capabilities “improve both the customer experience and internal efficiency,” Buckingham says. A digital claims system provides faster turnaround times, improved submission accuracy and a simplified client experience.
Automation tends to advance not by eliminating jobs but by eliminating particular job functions at which humans are inefficient or inconsistent or are exposed to risk.
“Some of our employees are comfortably working side by side with ‘assistant’ bots that help them input and process claims and other tasks,” Buckingham says.
“This is just the beginning, though, as we see automation continuing to make routine activities simpler, freeing up our employees to provide a deeper, more personal customer experience,” she says. “Most people feel that face-to-face interactions are more effective across all products than online tools—and consumers feel having that blend of face-to-face and online services is important.”
On the other hand, preferences change over time and the human element may become less important, says Thomas O’Connor, SHRM-SCP, a human resource consultant. Younger generations are more comfortable with technology, and some might be quite happy having a Siri or Alexa automated assistant as a co-worker.
Some estimates predict a wholesale reduction of human employment due to technology.
One of the more dire long-term forecasts says that over the next two decades, 47 percent of U.S. jobs could be lost to automation. The 2013 study by Oxford University researchers Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne concluded that China and India are expected to lose 77 percent and 69 percent of their jobs, respectively.
A 2018 policy brief from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development was somewhat less grim, finding that about 14 percent of jobs in member countries are highly automatable, with a further 32 percent experiencing significant changes in the way they are carried out due to automation.
More-sanguine predictions note that technology has historically created new jobs and new ways for employees to contribute. James Bessen, a Boston College law professor, noted in a 2016 research paper that since 1950, despite the increasing prevalence of automation, only one of 271 occupations categorized by the U.S. Census Bureau has been eliminated by technology—the elevator operator. Bessen found that other positions were partially automated, which often led to more jobs.
Mapping Job Loss to Skill Set
Source: KPMG International, H/R COE, 2012.
In the U.S., the impact of automation could be cushioned for many. With a tight labor market and an aging workforce projected through 2030, the resulting high demand for workers will likely ameliorate the impact of job losses due to automation, says Donald Grimes, a University of Michigan economist.
Still, many jobs that are highly inefficient, redundant or dangerous may indeed go away. Given the power of computing, there is no need for armies of clerks to process papers. And should humans, rather than robots, clean toxic waste spills and endanger their health in the process?
Positions for Which Automation Is Not Expanding
|Highly Skilled Professionals
Example: Lawyers and doctors.
|Those Involving Social Intelligence
Example: High-end salespeople with great contacts and people skills.
Example: Designers and writers.
|Those Involving Repetitive Processes with Complicated Factors
Example: Real estate agents and construction workers.
Time will tell how many of today’s better-compensated, more-desirable positions are supplanted. It may turn out that automation is a game of musical chairs in which the number of human workers stays steady, or even increases, but job functions and ultimately jobs are steadily whittled away.
“I’m a project manager by training,” says Roy Altman, CEO and founder of New York City-based software company Peopleserv. “About half of the tasks in that job could be automated, while the other half involve leadership and vision, which would be hard to automate or should not be automated.”
Humans vs. Machines
Given the impressive advances of machines, where might humans retain the edge? Much may depend on the extent to which robots, computers and other machines become more capable.
There’s no doubt that machines are getting smarter. They are regularly winning brainy competitions against human competitors, and they have become more adept at understanding and responding to human conversations and requests. Researchers are making advances in creating algorithms to simulate the most human of intellectual attributes, such as curiosity.
Robots and machines are becoming more versatile, too, as they consume data and use machine learning to teach themselves new functions.
But humans are likely to hold the edge for a while in some areas. The human body, with its hands and fingers and thumbs, is a multifaceted work platform. Flexibility and adaptability are likely to remain key human advantages.
Robots often have trouble operating in cramped quarters, noted Frey and Osborne. Plumbing, for example, would be hard to automate.
General Motors relies on human workers to see to small details. “At GM, while technology has reduced jobs, we are not close to having employees fully replaced by automation, as people still provide a lot of value as it relates to vehicle quality and build issues,” says Matthew York, director of labor relations.
Workers can tell better than machines if a car door closes with the right amount of force or if there are gaps in the final assembled parts. “And many of the automation advances we have implemented have been to allow employees to perform their jobs more efficiently and safely,” he notes.
Most Think Automation Will Take Over Many Jobs Now Done by Humans
How likely do you think it is that in the next 50 years, robots and computers will do much of the work currently done by humans?
Human beings also may be better at weighing offsetting factors and making final calls in complex and unique situations. Robots are unlikely to become managers because of the need to evaluate and make decisions based on a host of factors.
Some professional occupations, such as law firm partners and specialized doctors, may be relatively secure from automation’s advance. Other “safe” jobs are those that involve high degrees of social intelligence, such as high-end salespeople with great contacts and people skills.
Professions that require creativity are also insulated, according to a KPMG study. Creativity is widely considered a core human edge. In some cases, though, highly automated workplaces may risk losing creativity as machines perform an increasing number of everyday jobs.
At White Castle, human employees chose some tasks for automation, such as selling smoothie components in prepackaged sets, rather than having workers weigh and prepare the components for sale themselves.
“The team members on the front line know what is and isn’t working,” says John Kelley, chief people officer at the Columbus, Ohio-based restaurant chain.
Tasks requiring an understanding of human needs in social situations or caring for others are best-suited to be done by humans, Osborne and Frey found.
White Castle experimented with, but ultimately rejected, attempts to automate customer service. “The reason is that we have a heart for hospitality,” Kelley says. “We believe the way to give great service is to have one-on-one interaction with [employees] who are tuned in and responsive.”
Done right, automation can free up human workers to provide more of that kind of experience.
David Tobenkin is a freelance writer based in the greater Washington, D.C., area.
SHRM is here to help you integrate automation into your business. Here are some resources you can use to get started.
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