Upon checking into the Henn-na Hotel near Nagasaki in Japan, guests are greeted by an impeccably dressed, well mannered, multilingual receptionist who recognises them on sight. She’s incredibly efficient at her job, she’s always on time and has no problem staying late without overtime pay. In fact, she never asks for any pay at all. Why? She’s a robot.
The Henn-na opened last summer billed as the world’s first robot hotel. After completing check-in, guests encounter robot porters to carry their luggage, facial recognition software that allows them access to their rooms and robot-operated cloakrooms to store their belongings.
This is, supposedly, the first glimpse of the future, the pinnacle of high-class living. Robots on hand to take care of us and efficiently run our households. The same predictions are also being made of our industries, but these do not carry the same idealistic optimism that domestic advancements hold.
The Henn-na’s receptionist represents many of the fears surrounding the growing impact of robots on our workplaces. The past year in particular has seen the publication of a number of reports – most recently from the World Economic Forum – which suggest that, over the next ten years, as many as five million ‘human’ jobs will be performed by robots, causing widespread speculation as to the role humans will play in any future workplace. If indeed there are any roles left.
There’s little doubt that the world is becoming more technologically savvy than ever before. Just last week a super-computer outsmarted the world champion of the strategy game ‘Go’, beating him in four games out of five. But the reality of what a robot is, is very far from the image such inventions project. My research, conducted with my colleague Mary Lacity, focuses on the impact Robotic Process Automation (RPA) has had on organisations so far, and attempts to provide perspective on the bigger picture of automation and the future of work.
The key finding is that, for automation to be used effectively, it must be guided by human intelligence. Robots have limitations. Though the Henn-na’s receptionist could check you into your room, she’s not particularly skilled at idle chit-chat. She can’t, for example, look at the map you pass over the desk and help you find your way to the nearest train station. These humanoids currently exist as one-of-a-kind prototypes programmed for a limited number of functions. And, whilst the DeepMind computer from Microsoft may have learned enough moves and patterns to wipe the floor with its human competitor in the “Go” tournament, its capabilities are severely limited in any other area besides this one particular board game. Both lack the ability for free-thinking intelligence and independence. In short, they are not human.
For the majority of companies, robots exist as software or hardware which can perform routine service tasks such as transferring and organising data, with greater efficiency than human staff. RPA software is becoming increasingly commonplace in organisations as a virtual workforce, collating and logging data, and running most – if not all – of an organisation’s back office.
For employers, the benefits of using RPA instead of human staff include significant cost savings, faster processing (a study of an organisation within London’s insurance market, showed that data which previously took two days to process, took only 30 minutes using RPA), less error and a massively increased output.
Though this sounds like an argument in favour of headcount reduction, another key finding from our research is that, to integrate RPA systems effectively, they must be guided by human intelligence. The possibilities for any type of automation or robot are set by human will and imagination – something which AI is a long way off replicating – ensuring humans remain in control of the workplace.
Back at the Henn-na, guests will be disappointed to learn that there’s no team of droids flipping pancakes for breakfast. There’s a human kitchen staff. But this is the best way forward. Rather than reducing workforces, employers should combine their human and robotic staff as both are most effective when working together. With RPA handling those repetitive, unsatisfying data processing tasks, human employees are free to focus on the human-intensive roles that require skills robots cannot replicate – innovation, meaningful customer contact and building relationships.
Going forward, the key is to define those areas where human workers really are irreplaceable. Jeremy Tipper, Consulting & Innovation Director at global talent acquisition and management provider Alexander Mann Solutions agrees that AI has the capacity to change the future workplace beyond recognition which will result in employers looking for a different set of skills in their employees.
“It’s quite possible that AI could virtually eliminate most administrative tasks in many industries, leaving us with a new focus on inter-personal – as opposed to technical – skills as individuals move away from managing ‘the machine’ to managing relationships”, he says.
Contrary to today’s worst fears, robotics could facilitate the rise, not the demise, of the human “knowledge worker”, but managers need to prepare staff for the unavoidable changes to their current jobs, enabling them to upskill, specialise and re-train where necessary.
Advances in cloud computing, big data, the Internet of Things, mobile connectivity and social media will accelerate the exponential data explosion we are experiencing, making automation necessary to help organisations cope. But it also opens up opportunities for growth. Looking to the future, we found that for every 20 jobs lost through automation, approximately 13 new ones could be created. Some of these were related to technology, but most were about technology amplifying and enhancing human attributes and strengths.
Those who can adapt through education and training will find more satisfying work in the future. But only if the imaginations of their managers can expand as rapidly as our technologies can grow.
- This article was initially published in the HuffingtonPost Tech Blog.
- Featured image credit: Vanillase Inside photo credit:
- Professor Leslie Willcocks delivered a LSE public lecture on Service Automation: The future of work on 9 May 2016. Listen to the podcast.