Why you shouldn’t fear the robot uprising

To the casual reader, the rise of technology, robotics, AI and machine learning could be really rather terrifying.

To the casual reader, the rise of technology, robotics, AI and machine learning could be really rather terrifying. A quick glance at the mainstream media leaves you feeling as if we’re days away from having our jobs snatched away from us by C-3PO and his pals, essentially rendering us as useless pieces of meat floating around a rock in space. However, while that angle is currently being heavily pushed, the same fear has existed for hundreds of years. Indeed the word sabotage stems from the French word for clog, the same clogs that were used to destroy machinery during the industrial revolution over fears they would steal workers’ jobs and livelihoods. 

This vision for the future is almost certainly overly apocalyptic and while technology is undeniably having a major impact on almost every industry, the point where our roles become obsolete is a long way off, and here’s why. 

It is not just 18th century workers that have feared technology and change in general. When the Stockton-Darlington railway first opened, passengers were reluctant to board because they simply could not grasp how the human body could travel at speeds of over 30mph without suffering a gruesome death.  And how many of us are suffering from the ‘electrosensitivity’ that was meant to be a major problem with the advent of Wi-Fi earlier this century? The music industry has also fared really rather well considering that the rise of cheap cassette recorders was meant to stop it in its tracks. And there’s more. Back in the 19th century some even suggested that the popularity of the bicycle would aid female liberation, the growth of socialism and enable people to become more mobile (these were seen as negatives back then). And that’s before we even mention the scaremongering around the Millennium Bug. It is understandable to a degree. After all, very few of us actively like the mysterious or unknown, particularly when we’re being told it’s potentially threatening. 

However, when it comes to the working world, technology is here to help us. Within law, firms like Linklaters and Clifford Chance already use robots for administrative tasks such as document processing. In addition, many Japanese employers have also followed the example of Fukoku Mutual Life Insurance which has invested £1.4m into its cutting-edge AI system which will calculate pay-outs to policyholders.  And in the UK RBS has unveiled ‘Luvo’, an advanced programme that it uses to field customer service enquiries. There’s obviously a discussion to be had about developing true artificial intelligence with the ability to learn, but that’s a more existential question for another time. 

Robots are coming

But while the aforementioned administrative assistants provide relatively little intrusion into the working world, it’s a completely different story when you look to introduce technology that will completely change operating models or ways of working. Consider how uneasy you would feel to find out you now sit next to a robot, or that you are expected to feed all your work through an electronical entity. This is a major transformation and we are not yet at a point where these changes can be made and everyone can get on with their jobs as normal, we are far too human for that.

These shifts to operating models, strategies or simply how employees do their jobs are challenging and require skilled, agile and nimble leadership from people who are able to bond with different personality types and win over hearts and minds. In fact, an enlightening study by Dr Petra Bayerl from Rotterdam School of Management highlighted exactly that issue. 

Her research focused on a major organisation in the oil and gas sector that was looking to launch a two-way video conferencing platform designed to allow constant communication between off shore rigs and on shore management and engineers. The aim was to allow both parties to visually highlight issues and get them fixed immediately, rather than looking to explain an often complex problem over the phone, or in writing and then waiting for someone to help them to fix it. But despite this seemingly making clear sense, rig staff rejected the technology immediately. That was because it felt a bit too “Big Brother” and, consequently, they started to ‘accidentally’ turn off or put their hard hats over the cameras. The management team had made the simple mistake of assuming that their employees would adopt the tech, regardless of the fact that they did not have the benefits explained to them or how it would make their jobs easier by the appropriate leadership teams or individuals.

Companies may have ambitions of introducing tech on a greater scale than ever before but, realistically, it won’t happen without the right people to implement and drive these changes, essentially making sure they happen as they’re supposed to. Simply dropping in technology, no matter how advanced, and expecting everyone to alter their way of working as a result is highly naïve and unrealistic. The most likely outcome is that they won’t bother. They’ll be happy enough doing their jobs as they always have because without knowing the direct benefits of adopting the tech, they won’t see what they stand to gain from changing how they work and all of this ultimately means that your often significant investment could be wasted.

It’s probably true that the robots are coming and it is highly likely that in a decades’ time driverless cars and other advanced technology could be part of our everyday lives. We have already seen drones grow in popularity and now firms like Hermes have launched robots to deliver parcels on the streets too. However, it would be wrong to suggest that they really are coming to take all of our jobs, that’s a considerable way off and while there is major change and transformation taking place, there will always be a need for specialists, real human ones, to help make this change actually happen.

Barnaby Parker, CEO, Venquis
Image Credit: Tatiana Shepeleva / Shutterstock