Coexisting with Robots — The Future Workplace Reality

In a Silicon Valley startup, Fetch Robotics, about 50 employees and 125 robots work cohesively. According to CEO Melonee Wise, the human employees see the robots as pets, even calling them “pups.” There isn’t any fear of a robotic uprising, or robots taking over human jobs. Rather, both humans and robots simply coexist. This is becoming the new normal, with many companies employing robots to supplement their workforce as opposed to completely replacing it. Despite the fear that robots are predicted to take over most jobs, the future might, in fact, be more about working alongside robots rather than robots running the workforce completely.

Robots Do Jobs Humans Can’t

At Fetch Robotics, Wise states that “no one has ever lost a job because of our robots.” Customers approach Wise because they simply can’t hire enough people. “There’s 20 percent annual turnover and an estimated 600,000 jobs in the United States going unfilled”, says Wise.

Chris Volinsky, assistant VP of big data research at AT&T Labs, also feels that robotics and AI technologies have more benefits than negatives. For example, AT&T uses drones and machine learning to expedite inspection and maintenance of cell towers.

“(The drone) flies up with HD video and sends footage back to a technician on the ground to inspect,” Volinsky says, “It might take a half hour to do a full detailed inspection of one of those towers, even though the technician is only interested in certain parts of that video.” AI can thus be used to identify potential problem areas and highlight points of interest the technician needs to analyze. In this way, the drone isn’t replacing the role of the technician— rather it is increasing efficiency by reducing the time it would have taken for such a task from an hour to a matter of some minutes.

“I like to think of AI as taking the mundane parts out of people’s work and helping humans focus on their real expertise, which is identifying problems and focusing on what else needs to be done,” Volinsky says.

Disruption Will Happen

Obviously, this doesn’t mean that the workforce won’t be affected at all by technological changes. There will be displacement and disruption. Wise’s long-term plan involves deploying more robots and thus needing more people to install, program, and maintain the robots.

But the fear that AI will take over economic livelihood has been felt as a sharp blow in places like the manufacturing sector, as large swaths of the industry automate labor previously done by humans.

In a PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) report from March 2017, nearly 40 percent of U.S. jobs were slated as a “high risk” for automation by the early 2030s. These numbers were corroborated by research published in 2013 by two Oxford University researchers that estimated that 47% of U.S. jobs could be taken over by robots by 2033. There’s now even a website where people can plug in their job description and get an estimated probability that robots will replace that particular role.

New Jobs Created for Humans

PwC acknowledges that new tech typically means the creation of new jobs for human workers as well, conceding that “the net impact of automation on total employment is therefore unclear.” Like most evolutionary technologies, robots and AI pose challenges but also offer a vast array of opportunities for those willing to grab them.

Dennis Yang of online learning platform Udemy says that rather than wasting time fearing robots, we should all be motivated to upskill, learn and grow. In this new digital age, complacency is dangerous. The ability and enthusiasm to learn new things will separate ambitious professionals from the rest. Those who keep their hard skills current through ongoing learning and continuously work on their soft skills will do the jobs that robots can’t.

One aspect that robots can’t provide yet is human interaction. Strong, personalized communication has become an important soft skill to hone. As stated by Leighanne Levensaler, SVP of corporate strategy, Workday, “We need to keep relationship skills. I went to an automated, self-serve restaurant the other day, and I felt so empty when I left. Contrast that with my coffee shop. We are hard-wired for relationships—you want the smile, the connection.” No matter how advanced robots get, they are still artificial by nature. Human empathy can’t be engineered.

As AI and robots enter the workforce, humans will need to be adaptable, continuously learning new skills while taking advantage of the efficiency of new technologies to solve problems. In the future workplace, we’ll embrace new machines to simplify difficult tasks, help with mundane daily jobs, and assist us. Consider snackbot, a robot designed to bring employees cookies when they type “Robot, I’m hungry” into Slack chat at Fetch Robotics. Now, who wouldn’t want that?

A symbiotic relationship between humans and robots doesn’t seem so far-fetched, and it definitely beats the thought of a future that brings a war for prominence.

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