Two Sides Of Automation

Threatening jobs, and helping you work?

Forrester estimates that one million people will lose their jobs to automated technologies within the next four to five years. That’s just one of many statistics fuelling debate over the impact of automation. But despite fears over unemployment, in some economies automation is a blessing. In Japan, for example, unemployment has reached the incredible low of 2.8 per cent. Japanese businesses like HIS have met demand for workers by setting up a restaurant run by robots. This is also happening across the globe, however, in very different economies.

At CaliBurger, Flippy the robot flips burgers so humans don’t have to. At Zume Pizza, robots assemble and cook pizza after pizza. But in the US, where both of these businesses are based, prospective workers are vying for employment. The bots, and the technology that enables them to do their jobs, is not going to help the situation. Or could it?

Augmentation or domination

While some believe that process automation will leave the employment market in disarray, a more positive viewpoint has emerged. Instead of believing that it will dominate and eventually replace workers, this attitude envisions collaboration between humans and automated technology.

Showpad, a sales and marketing success platform augmented with automated software tools, aims to bring this mentality to sales and marketing. The company was founded seven years ago by Pieterjan Bouten and Louis Jonckheere. His standpoint on automation is that while it may well make certain jobs obsolete, it will ultimately create opportunities.

“Yes, people will lose their jobs,” says Pieterjan, “But it’s also an opportunity to change the economy and types of jobs. It’s not really clear as to what those jobs will be, but I think the future will tell us.” –  (a view also discussed by D/SRUPTION here.)

In sales, a disillusionment with salespeople has forced the sector to make changes – but in a survey of over 400 US and European B2B decision makers, CloudCraze found that 60 per cent believed that automation would cause sales teams to grow.

“Power has shifted to the consumer. They’re more informed, more demanding,” explains Pieterjan, “And guess what – they don’t like the old sales rep who’s just talking product price, who’s not delivering value. Those sales reps will be fully replaced by B2B ecommerce portals. That’s the transition that happened in retail, if you think about what Amazon is doing.”

It’s evident that automation has some real benefits for businesses and consumers. One of those is personalisation. By analysing customer data with machine learning, businesses can work out exactly what their audience wants. At the same time, however, humans are still the ultimate personalisation tool in face to face services. Robots may be able to put tomato sauce on a pizza and stick it in an oven, but they can’t yet deal with the fussy customer on Table 12 who wants their mushrooms sliced a certain way.

Working with robots

The changes that automation has caused in physical workplaces are clear, and not just in CaliBurger’s kitchens. Pieterjan compares the 1920s Ford Model T assembly lines with a modern Tesla factory. The Ford factory bustled with workers, but Tesla’s equivalent is run by robots. Despite this, he believes that humans still have an important role to play.

“For the finishing touches of the car, or the assembly of more complex parts, you need people. Today it’s a combination of man and machine. The human element remains critical.  Humans can over deliver, surprise, delight, and that’s really hard for technology to do. I envision that in the next 10 to 20 years technology will very much augment teams.”

As always, it’s vital to track consumer opinions. The number of jobs which could be lost has already led to negative connotations. The next question is whether people really want to be served by robots in hospitality environments. Pieterjan recently visited an automated restaurant in the US that only had one staff member, and while he admired its efficiency, he didn’t expect to become a repeat customer.

“It’s not somewhere I would go every day. I wouldn’t like to be served by robots, but it’s also a generational thing. Maybe people who are born now will find it very normal because they grew up in that type of environment.”

Aside from public opinion, widespread physical automation has various other barriers to contend with. On an economic level, there are considerations to be made over how we distribute the wealth that companies create on top of automation. If employers don’t have human employees, how should they be taxed? Financial issues will run alongside regulatory decisions. The potential legal implications of mass automation in public services are massive. This fear of the unknown is reflected in the attitudes of business owners. Reluctant companies will need to undergo huge changes in management to facilitate the continued adoption of automated technology.

Automation will lead to unemployment, but not for those who develop the necessary skills to work alongside automated technology. Showpad, for example, recognises changing consumer demands and uses automation to make sales teams more effective. In Pieterjan’s words, it’s a matter of being flexible and looking for the opportunities. At the moment, we are in a transitional period. Deciding how to regulate mass automation, and exploring the potential implications, will be imperative in order to make automation work for the better.

How has automation affected your business or industry? What skills will employees need to survive automation? Would you want to be served by a robot rather than a human? Comment with your thoughts.