Blog Post

Why the Rise of the Robots May Be a Good Thing for the Workplace

Cornerstone Editors

Star Wars robots R2D2 and C-3PO gave us a glimpse of a world in which machines and humans live and work together. Turns out that symbiotic relationship doesn’t only exist on the big screen. In our increasingly automated world, robots are diagnosing diseases, flipping burgers and taking inventory of warehouses.

Computers are taking rote tasks off of workers’ plates, but they’re also performing increasingly cognitive functions — even beating Jeopardy champs, for instance. What does this growing force of machine intelligence mean for workers? As robots gain the ability to do more of our jobs, we’ll need to invest in training and entrepreneurship to adapt to a new labor landscape.

"Instead of throwing up our hands and saying that the robots are going to take over everything, let’s double down on innovation and on revamping education to prepare people for the kinds of jobs that will be there," Andrew McAfee, coauthor of "The Second Machine Age," tells PBS.

HR practitioners, obviously, need to be focused on the impact of this shift in their specific businesses. Or as Naomi Bloom puts it in a recent blog post: "Indeed, the robots are coming, and HR had better think about what role the want/need to take where R2D2 is concerned." Naomi goes on to outline several points in the HRM business planning model that smart machines and robotics are likely to impact.

Hone creative and social skills

The Industrial Revolution drastically reduced the need for agricultural labor. This new machine age will cause similar, if not more significant, disruptions in the occupations that humans pursue. So what kinds of jobs will remain in high demand in an increasingly automated world? We’ll see an explosion in work that requires human interpersonal skills, such as personal training and elder care, says Erik Brynjolffson, McAfee’s coauthor and colleague at MIT’s Center for Digital Business.

To meet this growing demand for emotive occupations, future workers must be able to think more creatively than ever — not a skillset that traditional learning environments always cultivate.

"Historically, education in America has focused on getting people to follow instructions, sitting in rows and listening to what the teacher explains, but going forward we’re going to need much more creativity," Brynjolffson says. "Simply following instructions is something that software is pretty good at doing, and that’s not where you want to be competing, but we’re going to have more and more need for creativity."

Robots currently cannot manage a team of people, negotiate sales or provide counseling services. Jobs that hone these social skills are still best suited for humans.

Research shows some jobs are here to stay

Two University of Oxford professors predict that within two decades, 47 percent of American jobs could be automated. In their 2013 paper, Carl Frey and Michael Osborne estimated the probability that computers would replace humans in 702 occupations. Among the jobs at the lowest risk for automation in the next 20 years? Social workers, occupational therapists, dentists and elementary school teachers. On the opposite end of the spectrum, real estate brokers, accountants and auditors, and telemarketers perform work with the greatest probability of becoming automated. Frey and Osborne echo the call to revamp workers’ creative strengths.

"Our findings thus imply that as technology races ahead, low-skill workers will reallocate to tasks that are non-susceptible to computerisation — i.e., tasks that require creative and social intelligence," they write. "For workers to win the race, however, they will have to acquire creative and social skills."

Economist Tyler Cowen takes it a step further. He says that humans who can bridge the gap between technically skilled machines and niche industry knowledge will succeed in future job markets. Take Mark Zuckerberg for example.

"Obviously a great programmer, but had he just gone out to be paid as a programmer he wouldn’t be that well off. He was a psychology major—he understood how to appeal to users, to get them to come back to the site. So he had that integrative knowledge," Cowen tells HBR.

In other words, machines increasingly will take mundane tasks off of our plates, freeing us up to engage in more innovative solutions. The skills that we’ll need to work alongside these robots in the future come down to common sense and creative thinking.

Photo: Creative Commons

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