Will You Be Replaced by a Robot?

In 2016, the World Economic Forum, a think tank about the future, asked talent management officers from a wide range of industries for their take on the Future of Work. In a remarkable demonstration of how the brain can trick us into thinking we’re making purely logical decisions, this group of senior executives identified sweeping disruptions in jobs, technology and work life coming in just the next four years. Then they proceeded to downplay how those changes will affect them personally. For example, they predicted that more than one-third of current occupations in 2016 will depend on skills that are not even fully known today. Yet on average they reported having a “positive outlook” for their ability to somehow identify these unknown skills and produce them, as if by magic.

While Talent Management VPs may be impervious to the coming disruption in learning, the rest of us must be prepared – and we are already behind schedule.

Robots Don’t Have to Look Like the Movies

When you read the title of this post, you probably pictured a classic image of a robot from science fiction, like HAL from 2001, or C3PO from Star Wars. Or maybe your mind went to a more anthropomorphic image, like While one branch of artificial intelligence continues to develop more and more human-looking “robots with a face” to interact with humans, most robots don’t look much like us at all – because they don’t have to. Today, a robot may be washing your car, processing your online purchase or finding the most cost-effective hotel room for your next trip. In Japan, you can stay at a “robot hotel,” where the staff includes robot bell staff, desk clerks, maids and concierge.

Just about any simple to moderately complex, repetitive task, can be taught to a robot. (If this definition sounds a bit like your day-to-day job, you’re getting the idea.)

What Jobs Are Already Being Replaced or Transformed?

In his farewell address, Barrack Obama said that “The next wave of economic dislocations won’t come from overseas. It will come for the relentless pace of automation …” Here are a few examples of jobs that have fully or partially automated already.

I enjoy the services of a truly professional waitress, but this may be a dying breed. A group of hackers have already built a “beer bot” that takes orders, lets you know if the brand you requested is out of stock, and delivers the beer only to the person who ordered it, based on facial recognition.

The DaVinci robotic surgical system has been performing “minimally invasive surgeries,” for several years. While a doctor monitors the system, the robotic arms perform small, precise cuts that don’t require the large incisions needed by most surgeries performed by humans. This results in smaller scars, faster healing and less risk of infection.

Customer service phone lines, once manned by an army of agents from all over the world, are rapidly being replaced by online chatbots. In fact, according to AI Trends magazine, 44% of consumers prefer a chatbot to a human agent for routine requests.

Marketing companies are using AI to analyze and report on such items as brand exposure, advertising effectiveness and social media activity. Algorithms can also tell AIs how to purchase advertising to reach a specific audience, manage large events and projects, and even edit video or design web pages.

The Los Angeles Times, National Public Radio and other major news outlets use robots to report on stories such as earthquakes and sporting events. You’ve probably read or heard one of these stories and had no idea that you were consuming the work of an artificial intelligence.

Many argue that jobs involving “people skills” will be immune from replacement by robots or AIs for some time to come, but there are already AIs that perform medical triage and psychological evaluations. A company in India is marketing Miko, as a robot companion for children. (Although I could see myself hanging out with this cute little guy.)

And just in case you were thinking that a robot could never replace a learning professional, it is already happening. Robots are being used to teach autistic children to recognize social cues and interact with humans. It seems the kids prefer interacting with the robot, who can give little hints about how others are feeling, based on facial recognition algorithms. At Harvard, they’ve developed a robot that teaches kids how to code – and it only costs $10 and teachers use AI to grade papers. In fact the only reason we’re not hearing more about AI in corporate education is because – let’s face it – we’re generally behind the most innovative classrooms when it comes to implementing learning technology.

Is This is a Good Thing or a Bad Thing?

While there sharply differing opinions, debating whether the infiltration of robots into our daily lives is a good thing or the sign of the coming Apocalypse is missing the point. What we should be talking about is what we’re going to do about it. Just like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, we’ve always had the power to control our own destiny. No, it isn’t as simple as clicking our heels together and there are no ruby slippers to take us home. We’re going to have to use our own amazing intelligence to formulate new strategies. As talent development professionals, we may be tasked with re-training people who have been suddenly replaced by an artificial intelligence. Or, we may need to rethink the training tasks that are now performed by humans and adjust to a new way of doing our jobs. When automobiles replaced the horse-drawn carriage, craftsmen like buggy builders, blacksmiths and wheel builders were put out of work almost overnight. Our challenge will be similar. Some of those folks found work in the factories that made these new-fangled machines. Others moved into new jobs drivers, mechanics or engineers. I suspect that we’re going to be faced with a similar challenge in the very new future.

What’s your plan? If you don’t have one, now is the time to start.

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