Will we be replaced by robots…?

There has been a lot of comment on robots so far this year. Whilst the idea that robots might ,or will, replace humans is not exactly a new idea. It seems to us that it is moving more centre stage rather than just a fringe science fiction type concept.
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So will your job be replaced by a robot – or if not an actual human looking robot - by technology? Will you need less workers in your organisation in the future and more tech...?

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The popular press has had some quite scary articles recently e.g. “Robots will take over most jobs within 30 years, experts warn”, “Future of Work: Will machines replace humans?” You too have seen the headlines no doubt. But will it really happen and will you need to recruit less?

We think taking a historical perspective may give us some clues as to how things – may – pan out. Technology has to a greater or lesser degree been replacing human-only work for hundreds of years. First we had horses and oxen helping out on the farms then the Industrial Revolution around 1760. Since then we have had increasing mechanisation first with trains, then automobiles, computers and now semi-autonomous drones and robots. As each technology came in, workers were displaced in occupations that were replaced by technology.

However, it is important to understand that as technologies came in they also generated jobs: train drivers, taxis drivers, truckers, computer programmers etc. The jobs we have now, are very different from the ones that were around in e.g. 1700. The big questions are: will there be enough new jobs to replace the old? And, what will we do with those who are replaced?

We have video at the end of this post by CGP Grey the well known blogger and podcaster, called “Humans need not apply”. Its been seen over 6 million times and spawned much comment. If you have not seen it, its worth seeing as a backdrop to the debate, though be warned, it does paint a dystopian view of things to come. In essence he argues, that this time round, things will be different, that robots literally are a game changer and that there will not be the offsetting new jobs created as in previous technological advances.

Indeed, there is evidence around that points in this direction and does to an extent support his view. Take Foxconn as an example. If you have not heard of them, they are the people who very likely made your iphone, playstation, xbox etc. They used to have around 110,000 employees. Having recently spent billions on automation it recently reduced its workforce to some 50,000 employees. That a big drop and it only took a few years for it to happen. If you think it unlikely that your GP or Doctor will be replaced by a robot soon, think again. IBM’s latest computer- called Watson - is already capable of storing far more medical information than a human doctor, and unlike humans, its decisions are all evidence-based and free of cognitive biases and overconfidence. Given studies suggest as many as 1 in 20 US Adults is misdiagnosed by human doctors each year, Watson does not have to get it right every time. It just be better than a human and do better than a human doctor’s 1 in 20 error rate. As an example, it has been reported that it is already better than human doctors at diagnosing lung cancer.

So is the video right – should you plan on scaling back your recruitment and invest in robots instead? Well in our view, perhaps not just yet. Whilst it is true technology is getting better and better at performing tasks, they do tend to be highly structured tasks. We are still a long way off from a robot being able to walk, talk, interact and crucially - think like a human. Humans are very adaptable. Just think how far you have come from birth, the things you can do, the insights and ideas you have. We think this is where humans will score over machines. Now think of your organisation and look at all the jobs that it needs doing and all the different specialisms that your organisation uses to perform tasks. Don’t just think of your employees. Think about all the services that your organisation consumes and relies on to function and in turn deliver its own products and services. These days there is literally an army of sub-contractors and services than underpins any business. From phones, to computer services, advisor services, facilities etc. Each will no doubt use technology but they also have humans too.

Our business is technology and in particular technology applied to recruitment. We are seeing more and more demand for non-traditional employment services. By this we mean: contractors, temps, part-timers, fixed-term employees, interns, outsourced services etc. It also increasingly means for many turning to; virtual workforces, flexible project based staffing models and the “gig-economy”. We have had to adapt our recruitment solutions accordingly and it is adaptability in action that we think is where more of the future jobs will lie. These new employment and recruitment models don’t have the certainty of the old occupations and steady employment. But they are already working for many. We also agree that governments will need to think through both work, education, careers and welfare provision where people get displaced faster than the new jobs arise. But we do think there will be jobs. It will not just be a zero-hours type economy either (governments will likely need to address excesses there). They will in many cases likely be quite different in the future and whilst many may be based on a different employment model - they will be there. Recruitment will still be there too. Though that will also be likely different (though that is for another post).

Video “Humans need not apply” by CGP Grey (youtube)