Just visit a bank or clothing retailer Tommy Hilfiger’s digital showroom, and you’ll realize the interactive screens in Minority Report are no longer science fiction. Smart robots and machines are revolutionizing the office and factory floor.
By some counts, that means one-quarter of all jobs will be transformed – as smarter, nimbler machines will operate alongside humans in more-collaborative ways. But the emphasis will be on maximizing operational efficiency rather than simply reducing the cost base. And these changes will manifest in a need to use workplaces differently.
“Being more productive doesn’t mean just decreasing the amount of workspace used. It’s how the workplace operates,” says Jeremy Sheldon, Managing Director, Markets, Asia Pacific at JLL.
“There’s no question a number of jobs are going to go because of technology, whether it’s robotics in manufacturing, or computer programs in the services sector. It will be fascinating to see how far it goes.”
But the doom and gloom that often accompanies futuristic predictions of the robot-driven world are likely overdone, Sheldon believes. The improvement in technology transforms the working role, rather than eliminating it.
“If you can automate it, there’s a need for interaction,” says Sheldon. “As technology adoption increases, people’s need and desire for a more personal service has increased proportionally.”
This is one of the topics Sheldon will consider during the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting of the New Champions, which will take place in Dalian, China, from September 9 to 11, 2015.
In fact, it appears Asia is at the heart of the revolution. There are a world-leading 437 industrial robots per 10,000 manufacturing employees in South Korea, according to The Wall Street Journal (paywall), almost triple the rate in the United States. Japan has the most industrial robots in the world in raw numbers, at 306,700, compared with 237,400 in the United States and 182,300 in China.
So how will robotics will change the way we work? Here are just five ways:
1. Robots in manufacturing plants will shift from purely engaging in “heavy lifting” to finely tuned roles where they work alongside people. The company Rethink Robotics makes “collaborative robots” such as Baxter, which employees can show a mundane action that it will then duplicate, no computer programming involved. Rethink’s next-generation Sawyer robot executes precise tasks such as circuit-board testing.
2. While robots will eliminate some jobs, they will also create others, for instance in data management and computer engineering. The net 9.1 million jobs lost to robotics in the United States by 2025 is far less than the 69 million job losses anticipated by many pundits, according to the Forrester Research report, The Future of Jobs, 2025: Working Side By Side With Robots. But automation will transform at least 25 percent of jobs by 2019, Forrester finds.
3. People will engage in higher-end work. The robot Hadrian, currently under development at Fastbrick Robotics in Perth, Australia, can lay 1,000 bricks per hour at top speed, and build the framework of a property in just two days. So the role of the bricklayer, little changed for thousands of years, morphs into becoming an engineer.
4. Machines will teach themselves. The child-like robot Brett learns like an infant or toddler, through trial and error, at the University of California at Berkeley. But its “brain” is evolving fast through “deep learning,” to handle mundane tasks.
Companies such as Cyberdyne, a Japan-based robot-development company, are designing machines for non-manufacturing purposes that have artificial intelligence embedded into them. Its cleaning and luggage-handling robots operate at Haneda Airport in Tokyo. Also in Japan, Softbank Group has created Pepper, which can hand out promotional goods on the street, and help around the home.
5. Self-service models will become the norm. But this will affect some job roles more than others. Forrester Research predicts that 1 million business-to-business salespeople will lose their jobs by 2020 because buyers prefer to research purchases online.
On the other hand, “concierge” services will boom. For instance, the company Flipkart, India’s answer to Amazon, is looking at using the dabbawalla system of lunch deliverymen to distribute goods rapidly.