“In the twenty-first century, the robot will take the place which slave labour occupied in ancient civilisation.” This prediction made by Nikola Tesla in 1898 is not far from what our economy looks like nowadays. Of course the term “slave labour” does not apply to the jobs we’ve seen replaced by robots in the past decades and it is safe to assume that the robots we currently use, are different from what Tesla imagined. Most people associate robots with those resembling humans or the ones that are being used to manufacture cars, but the reality is a lot more multifaceted.
According to the Oxford Dictionary, a robot is a “machine capable of carrying out a complex series of actions automatically, especially one programmable by a computer”. However, when talking about robots, the real topic is automation. In discussing automation in a business context, the important factor is the potential that a given activity or occupation could be automated by adopting current and future technology. The main questions are whether or not the automation of that activity is technically feasible and whether or not it makes financial sense.
Our automated world
In a lot of areas automation and robots have already established themselves. This has gradually changed our private lives, especially in the last century. We have gotten so used to it that we don’t even think about it anymore. A good everyday example for this is the Automatic Teller Machine, or as we know it: ATM. Especially the younger generations can’t remember a time when it was not possible to withdraw or deposit money, even after the bank’s business hours and every car owner has probably been through an automatic car wash site. In fact the car that was washed in said site was, to some extent, manufactured by robots. We keep forgetting that these examples used to be activities and jobs performed by humans. By automating them our lives have gotten more convenient and mass produced goods cheaper but at the same time jobs have gotten redefined and some were even lost in the process. So the question is: Can we look forward to vast improvements in productivity, freedom from boring work, and improved quality of life? Or should we fear threats to jobs? According to the McKinsey Global Institute, fewer than 5% of occupations can be entirely automated using current technology, yet about 60% of occupations could have 30% or more of their constituent activities automated.
Automation enables our consumer society
In general the most technically feasible areas in which humans can be replaced by robots are those in which workers have to perform physical activities or operate machinery in a predictable environment. In these areas the potential for automation and therefore robots is the highest. However, a few global corporations such as Siemens have successfully discovered a delicate balance of synergy between the two in the advent of digitalization. That aside, the most automated industries remain manufacturing industries. Most mass produced goods, both basic and advanced, are at least partially manufactured by robots in automated processes. Our consumer society is built on factories and service providers using these technologies. Further examples are food services, retailing and accommodations: Currently robots and automation in general are on the rise in these sectors. Restaurants are testing new concepts like cooking robots and robotic servers, reducing the time from food order to delivery and grocery stores offer self service checkouts that are supposed to minimize waiting times and take pressure off the cashiers.
The social dilemma
Robots and automation can’t completely replace humans (yet). As stated above, most occupations only have a 30% automation potential and there are sectors in which that degree is particularly low, namely education and healthcare. A high amount of occupations and activities in these fields require good social skills. There are medical robots that can assist in surgeries but they cannot reliably diagnose patients yet. Today’s technology isn’t advanced enough for the combination of social, observational and analytical skills needed to be a good doctor. Furthermore most patients feel more comfortable and cared for when they interact with an actual human being.
This lack of social skills and the missing ability to have authentic social interactions limits the potential of robots greatly and is the reason for the educational sector being basically “robot-free”. It is an unpredictable environment which makes it hard to come up with a suitable programming. Every child learns at a different speed and has its own needs. What makes a good teacher is the ability to empathize with his or her students and connect with them on an emotional level.
Could a robot lead humans?
Much like teachers, people in executive roles rely heavily on people skills. Leading is essentially a combination of decision making and teaching. A good employee can only reach his/her full performance potential when (s)he is both qualified and motivated. A skilled leader needs to be able to train individuals and cater to employees’ needs. The question is: Could robots take up that role in the not so distant future?
There is no easy answer to this question. The current technology is not advanced enough to allow for “robot executives”. The lack of social skills and the difficulty in programming for unpredictable environments keep robots from succeeding in the health and education sector and the same deficits consequently prevent them from taking up executive roles at the present time. Robots are able to make “decisions” by analyzing data and finding the most logical solution for a problem but the ability to take risks based on experience and intuition is, at least nowadays, not possible. Nonetheless, executive activities that involve deciding rationally based solely on data could be taken up by robots. On the other hand, matters relating to ownership culture, which is a key fundamental to large enterprises such as Siemens, are definitely compromised without a legitimate source of emotion. Given these points, instead of fully taking on an executive role, they would better suit roles that aid human executives in their daily activities.
What the future holds
Over the past years we’ve seen technology progress at an amazing speed and the effects of the recent developments in robotics, artificial intelligence, and machine learning are yet to be seen. One thing is for sure: Robots will take up an even more important role in our society and economy than they already do. Additionally, in the long run it becomes more and more likely that there will be robots which have the ability to replace humans even in executive positions. Unlike the robots themselves, their future is unpredictable. They could be a blessing by making our lives better and safer but it might come at a cost, a lot of people could lose their jobs and therefore their source of income. At some point “Who will you hire?” will become a choice for executives between ethics and rationality – unless that decision is made by a robot.
For more info, go to www.siemens.com.my.