Has the Workplace Robot Uprising Already Begun?

By Carli Velocci on at

A few years ago, a burrito joint near my university installed computers so that customers could place their orders without ever having to make eye contact with a cashier. It was meant as a convenience, but my friends and I felt oddly detached ordering food through a computer. And we wondered: Did this signal the end of personable customer service?

As technology continues to expand and robots are picking up more creative tasks (interactive fiction, anyone?) it’s fair to wonder if the robot uprising has already begun. According to a partial report on robotics in the workplace by global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, it’s not as simple as one day you’re employed and the next day, your boss rolls in a machine to sit at your desk. It also depends on predictability of tasks, how data is collected, and how employees are managed. If there are more one-on-one interactions in the workplace and more need for specific expertise, there is less chance of automation.

McKinsey’s report—which will be out in full in 2017—looked at over 800 occupations and analysed at least 2,000 tasks. In occupations most related to predictable tasks and data collection, robotic replacements were most likely. In general, the areas with the greatest potential were food service, retail, and manufacturing. While some areas aren’t ripe for automation, McKinsey doesn’t count them out as candidates for eventually becoming automated.

The report found that the area with the most room for automation is in physical professions with what are called “predictable” physical activities. These include things such as welding, packaging, and food preparation. The “technical feasibility” of these areas becoming automated is at 78 percent. For those in “unpredictable” physical fields—such as construction—the feasibility only around 25 percent.

Customer service representatives also have a comparatively low chance of being replaced by machines, with a feasibility of below 30 percent. Areas that include a lot of human interaction also have a low possibility of being automatised, such as healthcare and education.

In a 2015 study, McKinsey reported that while 60 percent of occupations could have at least 30 per cent of their activities automated, it’s not like jobs will be completely replaced by machines. It’s just that many occupations and workplaces will have to redefine responsibilities as some jobs become automated. Case in point: the ATM, which hasn’t replaced bank tellers entirely, but has shaped what their key functions are.

“Just because an activity can be automated doesn’t mean that it will be,” the report said. “The jobs of bookkeepers, accountants, and auditing clerks, for example, require skills and training, so they are scarcer than basic cooks. But the activities they perform cost less to automate, requiring mostly software and a basic computer.”

The McKinsey report concludes that these rapid shifts toward automation shouldn’t be met with fear, bur rather anticipation, as business leaders can recharge their workflows and keep people who were in physically risky occupations safe.

The world will keep changing. We can either accept that change or fight against it. Yes, there will be jobs lost along the way as businesses tighten up staff in the wake of machines, but there will always be room for human beings to work. If anything, in some industries, automating certain tasks may free up the revenue to hire people in other departments, such as marketing and administration.

“There will certainly be winners and losers,” Ryan Calo, a professor of law at the University of Washington who focuses on robotics and public policy, told the Washington Post in 2013. “We’re talking about robots now because they are so versatile and affordable, and that will have profound effects on manufacturing, the entire supply chain and jobs.”

Once robots start taking over the creative professions though, and start gaining self-awareness, we might have a problem. [Snapmunk via McKinsey & Company]