Robotics and business: A dim future?

Reem Hosam El-din
6 Min Read

In an era where everything is moving fast and getting uninterruptedly modernised, digital technology, artificial intelligence, and robotics have become ever more present in the picture, slowly turning into main pillars in many of the sectors that economic growth and business rely on, leaving a clear impact in many industrial and non-industrial fields. We have all heard of task-specific robots replacing humans in manufacturing and in large factories. In these cases, robots are a faster, cheaper, and more efficient replacement of humans. But as the reliance on robotics increases, it is not unusual now to see robots replace humans in even more complicated tasks that require less physical effort and more mental effort. Today, robots can be found in offices, hospitals, and schools. This may sound rather novel since these are non-industrial environments. They can also be seen working in warehouses and small manufacturing centres. Robots are occupying more and more critical positions every day, announcing the start of an era—one that puts human resources aside and requires a faster accomplishment of tasks with little or no room for mistakes. While this looks like a good deal at first, a second look may tell you that this will not be very good for humans in the near future.

The Guardian recently reported that the UK is worryingly relying, increasingly, on the automation of services and robots in many fields. “ContactBabel, the customer service centres expert, predicts that 45,700 jobs will disappear from the sector between now and 2021. Of those, 20,000 are projected to go from the 168,000 employed to handle customer relations by high street retailers and distribution firms, as shoppers increasingly buy and interact online,” The Guardian said.

In the UK finance sector, which employs nearly 230,000 people, about 13,000 jobs are expected to disappear as banks reconfigure their businesses. “The digital revolution is expected to affect utility companies, with 11,000 jobs expected to go as challenger brands such as Lumo offer cheaper gas and electricity deals to customers willing to manage their accounts via an app,” The Guardian reported.

At least 44% of UK jobs could feasibly be automated, equating to more than 13.7 million people who together earn about £290bn. Specifically, call centre operators, secretaries, and factory workers are most likely to be affected by this digital revolution.

Recently, China has taken an even bolder step towards automation by opening a branch of China Construction Bank that is human-free. The “unmanned” branch has automated systems and robots that aid clients the moment they set foot in the bank, welcoming the customers, answering basic questions, and helping with services such as opening accounts, transferring money, and more, according to The Guardian.

Robots are handling more aspects of everyday life in Chinese cities. For example, there are guards deployed in train stations, programmed to scan the faces of travellers and answer any questions they may have. Cook robots and waiters can also be found around China.

The CEO of a major Chinese e-commerce company recently predicted “robots will eventually replace human workers in the retail industry, with China’s unmanned retail sector expected to triple in size to ¥65bn (£7.5bn) by 2020.

A small company named Skyline Windows LLC in New York City said that it gladly incorporates automation and robots into its business since they increase productivity and reduce the potential for error that comes with humans who are naturally prone to error especially when multitasking, according to Robotics Business Review. The senior vice president of the company said that embracing innovation can strengthen the company’s culture and give employees more time and freedom to move. He added that using technology in a work environment allows humans to do their jobs better, though there are, of course, a few places where a human is needed. He noted that customer service fields often require a real person.

According to ZD Net, a technology news website, a recent study by the National Bureau of Economic Research in the US looked at the impact of increased usage of industrial robots on US labour markets from 1990 to 2007 and found that there were “large and robust negative effects of robots on employment and wages across commuting zones…According to the historical data, jobs lost to robots have not been adequately replaced by new opportunities brought by robots, an argument technologists often fall back on,” ZD Net said.

While the use of AI and robotics may make for a more errorless work environment and help economies grow, will humans really be entirely replaced and threatened by such technological advancements?

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