“The robots are coming” has long been the terrifying movie tagline signifying the end of the world. “The robots are coming” suggests that human life is over – we are the dinosaurs ready to be replaced by a new breed of creature. We have been primed since childhood to view robots as bad, humans as good. Just look at Terminator. But should we be afraid?
Thankfully, the fear is rooted less in the threat of an aggressive global robot takeover and more in a gradual invasion of home and office. A 2017 Pew research survey found that 70 per cent of Americans were genuinely fearful about robots taking over their jobs and work. The growing trend in automation and the threat of AI taking over our offices means people are starting to wonder whether they’ll still have jobs in a few years. One key fear is the introduction of driverless cars - technology means a whole host of jobs will disappear, like truck drivers, taxi drivers, and bus drivers. That’s a lot of people worldwide. Another is the number of admin jobs that could be affected.
There is also growing fear that the way AI controls us is concerning. HR programmes already exist that measure the suitability of candidates for jobs. These can be used to work out, by analysing data about the person, how appropriate they are for the role, whether they’ll take a sick-day, or even the likelihood they’ll quit.
According to a PWC report more than a third of British jobs will be automated by 2030. The most at risk roles, with a 99 per cent chance of being automated, are new accounts clerks, data entry roles and insurance underwriters. The jobs least likely to be automated (at 0.3 per cent) are recreational therapists, substance abuse workers and emergency management directors. Choreographers and set-designers are also among the least affected, so insurance underwriters should definitely look towards the entertainment industries for inspiration.
Many small businesses are beginning to ready themselves for the inevitable introduction of new technology into the business. And, there are reasons to be positive. Andrea Hounsham, director and co-owner, Firework PR, explains why the prospect of automation works for her. “We say bring it on to AI and robots in PR. Every single job has aspects that are repetitive, a tad tedious and frankly, ripe for automation. Using AI to make these tasks quicker and more efficient is surely a no-brainer. Anything that helps us win back time to spend on skills like creativity, empathy and innovation can only be a good thing.”
She explains that there are exciting ways for AI to go further than just being an admin crutch, especially in an industry like PR and communications. AI can play a chief role in enabling new experiences and connections, Andrea says. “The rise of new interfaces and interactions such as 1:1 messaging, voice-enabled services and natural language processing means AI can bring us closer to consumer expectations, passions and emotions, helping us to create campaigns that press all the right buttons, at precisely the right time. By finding data patterns, content can be optimised to appeal specifically to an individual consumer with messaging that resonates every time, to improve engagement, loyalty and increase brand affinity. In this way, AI could enable us to pitch more effectively; helping us to target the right journalists, at the right time, on the right channel, and keep messaging on point.”
Technology has always defined the business sphere, and there’s no reason why businesses should shy away from AI or machine-learning. The industrial revolution was categorised by fears that jobs would be replaced by machines, and there were similar discussions (and protests) by hansom cab drivers who were concerned horses would be made redundant by the advent of cars. Essentially, there’s always been resistance to change but ultimately I think most factory workers would agree they’d rather be operating machines than hand-tweezing microscopic threads hunched over a table.
Ingvar Gudmundsson, founder of online Booking platform SimplyBook.me and new voice recognition software iBOB said: “Continued developments in business technology have streamlined internal processes and enabled employees to focus on more rewarding aspects of work rather than dull and basic tasks, that although vital to a business, often constrain human creativity.”
He explains how iBOB is liberating business owners and receptionists by reducing the need for customer service exchanges on the phone, such as appointment bookings. The automation of administrative tasks can improve certain business functions. He explains how new age automotive technology can not only be operational 7 days per week, 24 hours a day, but also has the ability to discern particular patterns within the data and produce an outlook in an extremely efficient and fast-paced way.
“By enabling companies to focus their resources on more profitable aspects of their enterprise, the technology is consequently creating a more cost-effective workforce and is freeing up the human elements of a business, in order to make personalised contact more impactful. Moving mundane tasks from the human element of the business also offers an opportunity for retraining and progression. Combining new technological output with a personalised approach should provide the perfect outcome in terms of results and efficiency.”
So, change is coming and there are ways to prepare the workplace. One thing is to encourage skill diversity in the workplace. Although there have been attempts to create robots with empathy skills who can react to changes in tone of voice, for the most part, face-to-face client interaction will remain an important part of the workplace. The key is to prepare the office for the future by helping staff understand what areas their work might change. Futurist Jacob Morgan states: “If you look at the ways in which most science fiction authors and film creators have portrayed the future office (which is a great place to turn to for ideas!) you will notice that in almost all cases offices still exist; they are just more hi-tech and are largely powered by AI (smart assistants) and technology such as gesture control.”
Businesses must consider what jobs will actually be created by AI and not just run from it. AI/tech/machine-learning opens the doors for new industries and roles to thrive including for those who create and maintain AI programs and those who manage trade-offs over what's best for society and what's best for AI/industry, for example GDPR regulators.
Research by TNT has suggested ways SMEs can prepare for the “robot takeover” by making your SME more efficient by using AI to streamline internal processes. The time gained by staff can be invested into new client relationships or work that can’t be done by robots. SMEs can work to provide additional services that use technology to make them faster and more convenient for clients while keeping up-to-date with the latest tech and developments in AI and virtual reality.
In short the introduction of AI and machine learning in the workplace should be celebrated rather than feared. Technological advances stops humans from resting on their laurels. More efficient technology frees us from the more mindless parts of our jobs and encourages us to develop more empathetic and analytical skills. It will push us as humans to expand our minds and explore what we're really capable of leaving the hum-drum to the machines.