Could you be replaced by a robot?

Research suggests that the rise of the machines is going to become a reality, at least in the workplace. What are the implications for HR?

Could you be replaced by a robot?
Alicia Vikander plays an eerily lifelike android in the movie Ex Machina – could this be the future for many jobs?

In brief:

  • Nearly half of jobs could be at risk of automation in the next 20 years.
  • Manufacturing is most likely to become automated, while creative jobs are safer.
  • HR can prepare by increasing the value placed on people’s minds.

If the warnings of futurologists are to be believed, there’s something scary and dystopian on the horizon. The imaginations of science-fiction writers, of a time when robots rule the workplace, could be coming true.

Fiction has long pondered the possibility of robots taking on roles traditionally filled by people. This year, the film Ex Machina and the popular Channel 4 series Humans suggest that there is a trend for examining the contribution that artificial intelligence can make to our lives.  

According to a number of studies, jobs that need human beings to perform them are rapidly diminishing. In its recent paper ‘Creativity vs Robots’, the innovation charity Nesta quotes research by academics Carl Frey and Michael Osborne, which suggests 47% of jobs are at risk of automation in just “a decade or two.”

The bottom line

So, what jobs are likely to be hit, and what should HR be doing to plan for it?

According to the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), the sector that will succumb most heavily to the rise of the machines is manufacturing. BCG predicts robots will increase the proportion of factory tasks they perform from the current 10% to 25% by 2025.

The tipping point, they argue, is when the cost of owning/maintaining robots comes at a 15% discount compared to employing a human. In the US, a spot-welding robot costs $8 an hour compared to $25 an hour for an actual person. Already, Chinese company Hon Hai (the world’s largest contract electronics manufacturer) is progressing with plans to replace 500,000 workers with robots in the next three years.

According to Nesta, next in line for automation after factory workers are insurance underwriters, tax preparers, mathematical technicians, library technicians, and data entry keyers.

Don't panic

However, Ian Stewart, chief economist at Deloitte, says HR professionals should not panic just yet: “The debate has become overly apocalyptic,” he argues. “The jobs that seem most likely to survive and thrive are those that require flexibility, creativity and social intelligence.” He adds: “Technology has always been seen as a threat to jobs, but it has also been the principal agent of improved human welfare.”

Of course, automation has always had people worried about jobs. In 1900, 41% of Americans worked in agriculture. A century later, that number had fallen to 2%, but the shift didn’t, on its own, cause mass unemployment – new jobs arise to replace the old.

And, for every study that says jobs will go, there are others that say something different. According to Thomas Frey, a futurist at US think tank the Da Vinci Institute, 60% of jobs that will be needed in the next 10 years haven’t even been invented yet – and will most likely still need people. Frey also points out that with the onset of ‘big data’, there will be a greater-than-ever need for more people to sort the useful information from the disposable.

"The best way HR can prepare is by increasing the value placed on the contribution of people’s minds"

Steve Hearsum, development consultant at Roffey Park Institute

But that doesn’t mean HR professionals can do nothing to prepare either. Steve Hearsum, development consultant at Roffey Park Institute, says: “The best we can do is to try and work out solutions to the trends we’re seeing right now – ie that more young people want greater collaboration, and that these same young people will be selling skills under their own ‘brands’.”

He says: “This might actually mean the people element of work – the ability to create relationships – may not die away at all. The best way HR can prepare is by increasing the value placed on the contribution of people’s minds.”

In some cases, what looks like an easily automated job turns out to have an important human element. In spring 2015, supermarket chain Morrisons was forced to abandon self-service checkouts and install 1,000 manned tills, following feedback that a whopping 96% of customers preferred to interact with a person.

People skills

More broadly, as simpler roles become automated, businesses will need to foster face-to-face relationships to sell products and services, and this will require greater staff training. “With automation will come job security,” adds Charles Seaford, head of wellbeing at the New Economics Foundation.

He argues another role for HR will be to improve resilience. He says: “The damage caused by job insecurity is only likely to increase. For employers, it’s a well-established fact that a healthy sense of wellbeing at work leads to greater productivity. They should keep this in mind.”

Business is getting smaller

  • When Instagram was sold to Facebook in 2012 for $1 billion, it employed just 30 people.

  • Lockheed Martin is a growing business, but in 2014 it had 112,000 staff globally, around 20,000 fewer than it had in 2000.

Adds Sir Cary Cooper, psychologist and professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University: “We can’t underestimate the change in the role of the manager. Given advances of technology, there will be fewer people in workplaces, and yet these fewer people will be expected to do more work. In order to cope with these demands, managers will need much greater skills. It will no longer be just about delivering the technical skills or getting results on the bottom line, but having the social and interpersonal abilities to retain and develop talent.”

That future focus on ‘soft’ skills is good news at least for HR professionals. As long as humans are employed by companies, there will be a need for other humans to manage their talent and development. HR looks safe from the robots for a while yet.


Saturday 23 September 2017
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