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Robots and Workers: Uncomfortable Bedfellows?

Sky News this week has been looking at the role of robots in the workplace and at home, bringing into focus the impact of increased automation on the economy and wider society. Talk of a ‘second industrial revolution’ and the prospect of increased productivity and innovation has many people excited, but there are many who fear that robots will take away jobs and result in increased inequality. A survey by Sky News highlighted some of these concerns, with almost half the respondents fearing humanity could be wiped out by robots, and six out of ten people suggesting that the government should protect jobs from being taken by robots<1>. The reality of the role of automation within the workplace is far more complex than the direct transfer of tasks from humans to robots and subsequent risk of mass unemployment. Historically we have seen repeated declarations of the demise of the human workforce, only for that to have never manifested. Even in industries where automation is widespread, human involvement is critical. Car manufacturing plants have humans and robots working in sync with each other, with the robots performing manual tasks that increase the productivity and consistency of the process, and the workers ensuring quality control and performing modifications based on visual judgment. Amazon’s warehouses today use Kiva robots to pick goods from the racks, and have seen productivity increase significantly along with reducing worker injuries and monotony. The final packaging of the goods into boxes is still done by humans though, as robots do not possess the dexterity to package goods to a high-enough quality. The hollowing out of middle-income jobs that require a high level of skill achieved through years of consistent learning on the job is a real concern. This was realised in the Industrial Revolution when artisans and craftsmen were being replaced by steam powered machines in factories. This also manifested itself in the car manufacturing industry in the early-20th century, when Henry Ford’s moving assembly line resulted in the creation of jobs that were easy to learn and repetitive. Whilst the above advances improved workplace productivity significantly, it resulted in a loss of technical skills from the workforce, reduced worker motivation and increased interchangeability of workers. The role of skilled workers is not completely obsolete though, as many companies are now beginning to realise the shift from middle-skilled to low-skilled roles has resulted in a lack of flexibility and creativity in the workplace. Continuous improvement of production processes can be hampered by inflexible robots that are difficult and expensive to modify, and a lack of worker understanding of the product they are manufacturing hampers their ability to innovate and adapt to change. These concerns have resulted in Toyota, a world-leader in manufacturing process design, to in fact begin stripping robots out of some factories and replace them with humans<2>. This shows that companies that are purpose-driven and focused on employee skill-development and engagement will have to make tough decisions on how to incorporate automation within their core business activity. This along with other dilemmas for business leaders on the topic of workplace technology will be highlighted in Tomorrow’s Working World, a report by TC to be published by the end of this month. <1> <2>

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