2015 Trend Alert: Preparing for an Intelligent Robot Workforce

 In Musings, Trends

Watch the news and/or read a few headlines from RobotTrends Magazine  and you start to wonder if there will be any room or even need for human hands and brains:

These are very real and very cool innovations, but what are their implications between now and 2025? And, importantly, how will the workforce need to shift and change in the face of robots and artificial intelligence?    

According to PewResearch’s report Digital Life in 2025, published August 2014, there are some Key themes to be considered.  

On the positive side of things:

  • Advances in technology may displace certain types of work, but historically they have been a net creator of jobs. 
  • We will adapt to these changes by inventing entirely new types of work, and by taking advantage of uniquely human capabilities. 
  • Technology will free us from day-to-day drudgery, and allow us to define our relationship with “work” in a more positive and socially beneficial way. 

However, here are a few reasons to be concerned:

  • Impacts from automation have thus far impacted mostly blue-collar employment; the coming wave of innovation threatens to upend white-collar work as well. 
  • Certain highly-skilled workers will succeed wildly in this new environment—but far more may be displaced into lower paying service industry jobs at best, or permanent unemployment at worst. 
  • Our educational system is not adequately preparing us for work of the future, and our political and economic institutions are poorly equipped to handle these hard choices. 

I would add a couple additional reasons for concern:

  • Companies are not actively preparing for some of the biggest changes in workforce that the world has ever experienced. Understandably, companies must focus intently on the day-to-day, tactical business needs at hand; however, this is a shift not to be ignored in the early stages.
  • In the book, The Coming Jobs War, Jim Clifton warns of the challenges the world will face as the availability of jobs for the masses, decreases. At the core of the message is: people want to work, people want to be valued and want to contribute. This poses several questions. Can we project the types of new workforces needed in this new world? And, do we know in this moment in time how to develop the new skills that will be needed in the future?

So, what is a human to do? First we should remember that, ultimately, we as a society control our own destiny through the choices we make. Below three strategies that humans can do to find success in the AI & Robotics revolution. 

  1. This period of change is not unlike the early days of the tech boom, when the pace of technological innovation outstripped the universities’ ability to keep up. At that time, “Tech Guerillas” were spending late nights tweaking systems and learning a wealth of knowledge experientially, in essence creating the framework for how all business is done today, worldwide. It was only much later that Academia began offering degree programs to train the workforce on necessary tech skills, usually falling back on “uncredentialed” experts to develop their programs. You gain early success in the AI & Robotics space by taking a page from the “Tech Guerilla” playbook – don’t passively wait to learn all there is to know about the technology, get in and get your hands dirty, actively create the textbook others will use to follow the trail you blaze.
  2. Job displacement will be the tough pill to swallow, and the introduction of AI & Robotics into the office will be as painful as it was on the factory line. The heartening news is that we have already seen many organizations go lean and mean during the past few years of economic crisis. The necessity of cutting costs has forced many tough decisions about efficiency of work, which, as harmful as it is to millions of laid off workers, allowed companies to survive. Automation is a key driver for maintaining operational efficiency, tools are becoming more self-driven, smarter, and more connected. When you add the layer of AI and deep learning you can understand the cost savings that can arise from “True Automation.” I think it will be a long time before we have the HAL 9000 computer from 2001: A Space Odyssey sitting in the C-Suite, but we certainly are inviting him to apply for a job in marketing, or the mailroom, or in sales as a cold-caller (giving robo-dialing a new meaning).   
  3. CEOs can begin early by trying to anticipate new ways of working that can mitigate the effects of job displacement by AI & Robotics. One cost-effective way is to create simulations or pilot programs to test how the new systems will affect workflows and business processes. This type of scenario allows you to adjust the affected duties in a contained yet real-time way to maximize efficiency while at the same time helping develop new ways of working in conjunction with the automation, not in contention with it.
  4. The business savvy generalist is a necessity in this world. The art of anticipation, alignment and understanding more than just a niche role is critical. Robots will be best at these mundane niche roles first and foremost. The complex thinking and critical decision making based on knowledge, experience and “breath of view” will be harder to replace. This is a simple thing to write but in reality harder put into practice. Rotating professionals around the organization to learn multiple roles is a great way to start this ball rolling. Holding group meetings and inviting in members for other departments is another way to begin to grow the team.
  5. We cannot fight the speed of innovation and the robot world so embrace it for what it will do for the world. Start now planning how you as an individual and your company will add value by being humans in the workforce of growing intelligent robots.

Diversity in our daily lives at work and at home and on our teams will ultimately pay off as the new world of work unfolds.

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