What do Americans fear more than flying, germs, or animals? Computers replacing people in the workforce. The 2016 Chapman University Survey on American Fears found 16 percent of respondents were afraid or very afraid of losing jobs to technology. And the generation that’s grown up attached to a smartphone is even more concerned. An international 2016 Infosys survey of 16-to 25-year-olds found that 40 percent thought their current jobs could be replaced by some form of automation within a decade.
So just how worried should we be about being replaced by a robot?
Not very, according to Martin Fiore, Americas Tax Talent Leader for EY, the global professional services firm. Fiore believes we should look forward to working alongside robots, particularly young people starting their careers. EY is the number two hiring firm for U.S. college graduates.
“Robots can free workers from mundane tasks, allowing them to provide purpose and value at a higher level,” says Fiore. EY uses Robotic Process Automation (RPA) in its tax practice, which consists of bots, or software applications that handle repetitive, high-volume automated tasks.
“Our people used to have to spend hours cutting and pasting, pulling together disparate pieces of information, “ says Fiore. “Now they can start with that information and ask ‘What does it mean for our client?’ It’s a huge change.”
Using this type of automation allows EY workers to focus on interpreting data as they work alongside a bot, according to Fiore. He says the bots haven’t cost any jobs at EY.
“We’ve taken the robot out of the human, “ says Fiore, by eliminating mundane and repetitive tasks. He says this is especially important for millennials, who want to make a difference early in their careers and apply what they’ve learned in college more quickly.
This sounds great for an information worker who no longer has to slog through data, but what about other industries? Momentum Machines has developed a robot that creates 400 made-to-order hamburgers in an hour without any help from humans. A 2015 Ball State University report found that almost 88 percent of job losses in manufacturing in recent years could be attributed to enhanced productivity because of automation. Can we expect more jobs to disappear as robots become cheaper and smarter?
It depends on who you ask. A 2016 Oxford University report found that 47 percent of U.S. jobs are at risk of being lost to automation over the next two decades.
But a 2016 McKinsey Global Institute report concluded that fewer than five percent of careers can be completely automated using existing technology. However, the report found about half of work activities could potentially be done by a machine. Data collection and processing and predictable physical work are the activities most likely to be automated.
Perhaps the most likely scenario is that many of us will end up working alongside robotic technology, like EY’s tax practitioners, rather than being kicked to the curb by them. For example, Fiore says a robot could lay bricks while a human being directs its work.
Nearly two-thirds of Americans are already using a digital assistant or some form of robotic technology, according to Loop Intelligence. A Roomba cleaning the kitchen floor has become routine for many of us, frightening only the cat.
But even as we become more reliant on Siri and Alexa in our personal lives, accepting more automation at work won’t be easy. Companies that invest in robotic technology will have to work hard to manage the people side of change. Workers worried about losing their jobs may have to learn new skills. For example, Momentum Machines, the maker of the burger bot, posted a job ad for a “restaurant generalist” who can troubleshoot software—quite a different skill from what’s normally expected of fast food workers.
“If you look at what’s ahead, you’re either going to be disrupted, or get in front of the disruption,” says Fiore. He says the best way to prepare workers for robotic technology is to help them understand how it will benefit them—improving the quality of their work, reducing mundane tasks, and giving them the time to provide purpose and value at a higher level.