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Are Bots and Robots the Answer to Worker Shortages?

Using software bots has become commonplace in many workplaces around the world, but with worker shortages, will robots start filling more roles soon?

robot giving hand sign
Unsplash/Possessed Photography
Earlier this year Axios wrote about “the digital bots coming for office jobs”:

“Software bots are getting smarter and more capable, enabling them to automate much of the work carried out in offices.
Why it matters: Bots can make digital work more efficient by taking on onerous and repetitive white-collar tasks, but the better they get, the more competition they pose to skilled workers who might have thought themselves exempt from the job-disrupting effects of automation.
How it works: Think of bots as robotic assistants, acting in the background to simplify and streamline some of the less exciting but necessary aspects of digital work: scheduling meetings, approving expense requests, and probably somewhere, submitting TPS reports in triplicate, 'Office Space'-style.”

The article goes on to suggest that the forced shift to remote work during the pandemic only accelerated the bot-using trend, and in a survey by Deloitte last year, 73 percent of global executives reported their company was investing in intelligent automation, up from 58 percent in 2019.

CAN THE ROBOT STAND UP?



What really grabbed my attention in the past month were the headlines describing the growing use of robots — with more to come. No, we are nowhere near the Jetsons yet, but we need to start somewhere.

Consider these articles:

Newsweek: With Labor Shortage, Dallas Restaurant Using Robots as Hosts, Runners

“When the Dallas, Texas, restaurant La Duni found itself short-staffed, co-owner Taco Borga turned to the future: He hired robots to be servers. …

"Borga told the newspaper that while he brought the bots into his eatery out of necessity due to workers not returning post-pandemic, he said they also offer savings. Each robot costs him $8 to $10 a day, Borga said. They are used in the place of one hostess and two food runners, which he said he would normally pay at least $10 an hour each.”

Yahoo News: Do we need humans for that job? Automation booms after COVID

“Ask for a roast beef sandwich at an Arby’s drive-thru east of Los Angeles and you may be talking to Tori — an artificially intelligent voice assistant that will take your order and send it to the line cooks.

“'It doesn’t call sick,' says Amir Siddiqi, whose family installed the AI voice at its Arby’s franchise this year in Ontario, California. 'It doesn’t get corona. And the reliability of it is great.'

"The pandemic didn’t just threaten Americans’ health when it slammed the U.S. in 2020 — it may also have posed a long-term threat to many of their jobs. Faced with worker shortages and higher labor costs, companies are starting to automate service sector jobs that economists once considered safe, assuming that machines couldn’t easily provide the human contact they believed customers would demand.”

CNN: More than 50 robots are working at Singapore's high-tech hospital

“In Singapore's Changi General Hospital, there's a chance your surgeon won't have a heart. The cleaners might not have lungs, and the physiotherapist could be completely brainless.

"That's because at Changi General Hospital (CGH), more than 50 members of staff are robots.

"From performing surgery to carrying out administrative work, robots have become an integral part of the 1,000-bed hospital's workforce, says Selina Seah, director for the Centre for Healthcare Assistive and Robotics Technology (CHART), which works with CGH to find high-tech solutions for problems in healthcare.”

One more, from ScienceDaily: These robots can move your couch

“Engineers have developed robots that can work independently and cooperatively to move unwieldy objects like a couch. In simulations, the robots were successful even when tasked to move an object in new, unfamiliar scenarios.”

THE TREND ISN'T NEW — BUT NEW PLAYERS ARE MOVING IN


Some of you are no doubt thinking: Nothing new here, just move along.”

Indeed, I wrote an article back in August 2014, proclaiming that Robots Are Coming: Even to the Cloud.

However, the stakes and opportunities are growing, with the likes of Elon Musk jumping on board the robot bus. Back in August, the Tesla Robot was announced, albeit delivery of working robots was still years away.
Meanwhile, a Chinese Tesla rival XPeng plans new vehicles and targets a distant future in robots and flying cars.

CNBC reported, “The XPeng founder predicts that all automakers will become both car makers and robotics companies, a process he says could take 10 to 30 years. XPeng is looking at robots as a transportation tool 'in a low-speed and random environment.'"

RISKS IDENTIFIED?


Besides offering the job vacancy angle, experts are asking security and ethical questions about robots powered by AI. In an article titled Nobody Really Knows if The Tesla Bot Is Real. But if It's Real, So Are The Risks, Sciencealert.com wrote:

“Crashes and fatalities associated with Tesla's Autopilot mode — the latest having to do with the algorithms struggling to recognize parked emergency vehicles — are calling into question the wisdom of releasing the tech into the wild so soon.

"This track record doesn't bode well for human-like robots that rely on the same technology. Yet this isn't just a case of getting the technology right.

"Tesla's Autopilot glitches are exacerbated by human behavior. For example, some Tesla drivers have treated their tech-enhanced cars as though they are fully autonomous vehicles and failed to pay sufficient attention to driving. Could something similar happen with the Tesla Bot?”

FINAL THOUGHTS


How fast will these robot trends develop? Are bots and robots going to take over (or at least transform) the workplace and jobs in the 2030s? Only time will tell.

Last year, I asked Should You Connect Your Brain to the Internet? Here’s how that blog started: "Move over robots, a new competitor may be about to disrupt the world of artificial intelligence (AI) — and this technological breakthrough may soon benefit a friend or family member near you. Or, perhaps, the coming age of augmented humans will one day change the way all of us interact with technology."

And who is in the lead with that augmented human technology? You guessed it: Elon Musk.

Nevertheless, these trends are clearly accelerating, and we are only in the early days of AI AND robot development. In other words, watch this space for more to come regarding robotic coworkers.
Daniel J. Lohrmann is an internationally recognized cybersecurity leader, technologist, keynote speaker and author.
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