“To be Afraid or not to be?” The continued rise of AI, Automation and Robot technology

Smart technologies aren’t just changing our homes; they’re edging their way into their numerous industries and are disrupting the workplace. Artificial Intelligence (AI) has the potential to improve productivity, efficiency and accuracy across an organization – but is this entirely beneficial?

By Veeno Dewan

Smart technologies aren’t just changing our homes; they’re edging their way into their numerous industries and are disrupting the workplace. Artificial Intelligence (AI) has the potential to improve productivity, efficiency and accuracy across an organization – but is this entirely beneficial? Many fear and rightly so that the rise of AI will lead to machines and robots replacing human workers and view this progression in technology as threat rather than a tool to better ourselves. But the reality is that AI is already here in your smart phone, in your smart watch, in action at your supermarket, in your office, in your home at the factory, and all around you. AI is remarkable for what if can do and can be applied to. The introduction of these technologies has triggered fundamental changes in society, the global economy, education, disrupted world employment patterns and impacted job security due to the substantial changes. It is likely that artificial intelligence in its most serious impact will soon replace most jobs involving repetitive or basic problem-solving tasks, and even go beyond current human capability. Soon AI systems will be making decisions instead of humans in industrial settings, customer service roles, the medical field, and within financial institutions.

Rise of the Robots

Robot technology can take many forms. Imagine a car making plant that used to employ thousands of workers to make vehicles that now uses just a few hundred? Or think of a traditional warehouse that formerly employed 200 people and now has workforce that numbers just twenty. This is the reality as robots are now used in manufacturing, welding assembling, painting, stacking, material handling and a multitude of tasks formerly done by humans. How about robot customer service systems that are now replacing customer care centers?  The advantages are clear; after an initial investment, robots work 24/7 and never take time off, or get ill. They don’t require pensions, vacations or have unions.  Manufacturing plants that once had just as few specialized robots are now employing them in the dozens or hundreds, while human workers now tend the robots instead of actually making anything. For example, human employees who previously lifted and stacked objects are now a becoming robot operators, monitoring the automated robot arms and resolving issues such as an interruption in the flow of objects.  As self-checkout machines are introduced in supermarkets human cashiers are now checkout assistance helpers, who can help answer questions or troubleshoot the machines rather than simple clerks.

Most mundane, repetitive tasks can be automated and this is something set to continue. Robots are even being developed that can make fast food and mix drinks as robot bar tenders! Partial automation will become more prevalent as machines complement human labor. For example, AI algorithms that can read diagnostic scans with a high degree of accuracy will help doctors diagnose patient cases and identify suitable treatment. Its science fiction come to life.  But don’t expect glowing red eyed “Terminator” style robots to be popping out of the wood work!  Robot integration is more subtle.

A recent Canadian Price Cooper Waterhouse study predicts the next wave of automation, this could dramatically increase up to 30% by the mid-2030. Occupations within the transport industry could potentially be at much greater risk, as robot cars and autonomous driving begin to take traction.

AI and Automation is driving new technological shifts

While some innovative solutions are emerging, solutions that can match the scale of the challenge will be needed as follows:

  • Evolving education systems and learning for a changed workplace. Policy makers working with education providers (traditional and non-traditional) and employers themselves could do more to improve basic STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) skills through the school systems and improved on-the-job training. A new emphasis is needed on creativity, critical and systems thinking, and adaptive and life-long learning. There will need to be solutions at scale.
  • Redesigning work. Workflow design and workspace design will need to adapt to a new era in which people work more closely with robots and automation. This is both an opportunity and a challenge, in terms of creating a safe and productive environment. Organizations are changing too, as work becomes more collaborative and companies seek to become increasingly agile and non- hierarchical.
  • Governments will need to consider stepping up investments that are beneficial in their own right and will also contribute to demand for work (for example, infrastructure, and climate-change adaptation). These types of jobs, from construction to rewiring buildings and installing solar panels, are often middle-wage jobs, those most affected by automation.
  • Embracing AI and automation safely. Even as we capture the productivity benefits of these rapidly evolving technologies, we need to actively guard against the risks and mitigate any dangers. The use of data must always take into account concerns including data security, privacy, malicious use, and potential issues of bias, issues that policy makers, tech and other firms, and individuals will need to find effective ways to address.

To sum up, although AI is producing significant changes in society; there is work for everyone today and there will be work for everyone tomorrow, even in a future with automation and robot technology. Yet that work will be different, requiring new skills, and a far greater adaptability of the human workforce than we have seen. Training and retraining both midcareer workers and new generations for the coming challenges will be an imperative. Government, private-sector leaders, and innovators all need to work together to better coordinate public and private initiatives, including creating the right incentives to invest more in human capital. The future with automation, robot technology and AI will be challenging, but a much richer and rewarding for society in general if we harness the technologies and developments with confidence, not trepidation.


Credits McKinsey Global Institute/ Price Cooper Waterhouse/ Open Source Creative/AI Chronicle/ Canada Business