• November 10, 2016

Will Robots Rule the Roost?

AI is coming, but can it take over?

When you think of robots or smart machines, you might think of the mechanical arms hard at work on assembly lines or of Honda’s humanlike and widely publicized creation ASIMO. And, while examples like these are becoming increasingly ubiquitous, they also seem to be largely separate from our day-to-day lives. That’s because these robots typically work in the background behind closed doors where most people never see them, or they’re only hauled out for high-profile media events a few times a year. Either way, they don’t seem very relatable.

In reality, however, robots are becoming increasingly prevalent and are well on their way to becoming a part of our daily lives. While we’re just at the beginning of the robot revolution, they’ve started popping up in some interesting places in the last few years. Consider these examples:

  • In California’s Silicon Valley, a hotel began trials of a robotic bellhop more than two years ago. It was designed to automatically transport items from the hotel lobby to guests’ rooms.
  • Hardware chain store Lowe’s has introduced robotic shopping assistants in one of its stores. These assistants are designed to greet patrons, ask them if they need any assistance, and then guide them to specific products.
  • Cruise line Royal Caribbean now offers bionic bars on its newest ships, where robotic bartenders prepare cocktails for customers.
  • E-commerce giant Amazon has received wide attention for its plans to use drones to enable delivery of some products weighing up to 5 pounds in just 30 minutes.
  • In China, a number of fast-food restaurants are now run almost entirely with the help of robotic waitstaff. While there’s still a way to go to getting them right, this could be the start of a trend that takes off elsewhere.

The examples go on and on, with fresh ones coming out all the time.

Robots for Hire

While the growing adoption of robotic technology in capacities like these may seem novel at this stage, the reality is that it also has important implications for the workforce of tomorrow. In a report published earlier this year by the World Economic Forum, the authors noted that up to 5.1 million jobs could be lost over the next five years in the 15 global leading economies from disruptive labor market changes such as robots and artificial intelligence.

Even more startling is the prediction from Oxford University that as many as 47 percent of U.S. jobs could be automated by machines over the next two decades.

But don’t start trying to move all your jobs to robot employees. While enterprises are smart to start looking at areas of business where robots and AI would increase efficiency, you have to keep in mind that some roles can’t be done well and innovatively by anything but humans. Customers may not be comfortable dealing with a machine for some services. Humans also perform some tasks with higher quality than robots and are equipped to problem-solve in unpredictable roles.

Automation can even increase the need for humans in certain positions. For example, bar-code scanners and point-of-sale systems were deployed in the U.S. in the 1980s, lowering labor and grocery costs. This actually increased the demand for cashiers; employment grew at an average rate of more than 2 percent between 1980 and 2013.

So while the robots (and AI, machine learning, and all kinds of automation) are definitely coming, it’s likely we can all just get along. And successful enterprises will be the ones that embrace the efficiencies of robots while recognizing that humans can never be fully replaced.

Like this story? Read more about how good AI is at being human.