Will a robot take over your job? No, if you have the right skills

Governments need to have a national plan for upskilling workforce for higher cognitive jobs in a digital era.

By Shalini Verma

Published: Sat 15 Aug 2020, 10:25 AM

Last updated: Sat 15 Aug 2020, 6:11 PM

In a rare disarming moment, my son was discussing his career choices with me. I had just come away from a discussion on AI, and I instinctively said to him, "Be skilled enough to not get replaced by a robot." That random remark is the single most important sword dangling over jobs today.
As current industry models falter against the pandemic's onslaught, we are foraging for alternatives. The pandemic has ushered in a replacement economy in 2020. In restaurants, plastic cutlery has been replaced with metal ones. The familiar faces in the local restaurants and ice cream parlours have been replaced by new staff who presumably cost less. Office desks have been replaced by kitchen counters and dining tables. Large organisations are thinking more strategically about making humans entirely redundant for certain tasks.
Humans have always feared new technology, right from an electric iron to a gas stove. Each major technology shift was popularly perceived as auguring the end of human civilisation. But we lived to tell the tale of the transformational changes. Here we are now, poised to relinquish the job of flipping a pancake to a robot. That's right. The prospects of a chef being replaced by a robot is very real.
AI Automation is on the minds of every business. Whether they are physical robots or software bots, organisations are combing through their complex process to pick out manual, repeatable and rules-based processes. So, if your job has these three attributes, you are at great risk of being replaced by a machine. If not today, then perhaps in a year or two. If you tend to write customer outreach emails that are routine, sound almost the same each time or your task requires no human judgement, be prepared for that HR call. If your customer does not know you well enough to speak to you on personal terms, a robot is waiting in the wings for your seat.    
In a Covid19-free world, automation may have been a euphemism for higher productivity of employees. The back office was experiencing a quiet makeover with bots taking the place of full-time employees (FTEs) and contract staff. But this new wave of automation is unabashedly about cutting cost. In 2020, the barometer of success for Robotics Process Automation is the number of FTEs it replaces. 
The recent economic stress has forced businesses to open doors to robots that are taking up simple routine jobs. Many of those jobs made redundant this year have been piled onto the existing workforce. This Covid19-induced workload will be shared by bots. 
Now more robots are cleaning floors in hospitals and airports. Disinfection robots that were previously used to disinfect hospitals have now been deployed at the Heathrow airport. They can map out an area to be sanitised and can cover 800 square meters in 2.5 hours. Robots are already checking temperatures and distributing hand sanitizer in shopping malls. 
Large organisations are building a taskforce or a centre of excellence that will be the epicentre for building bots of all levels of complexities. Business units in that organisation that face cost pressures will seek help from the bot taskforce. They will audit each process to plug in bots where needed. 
Japan that has always faced labour shortages is seeing a 30 per cent reduction in the listing of simple jobs for manufacturing and clerical desk work. These are going to bots. In the manufacturing industry, the US-China trade war is motivating US companies to reevaluate their manufacturing strategy. Robots fit right into their plans to bring some of the manufacturing units back to the US. They help in restaurants and warehouses for contactless service. 
This shift does not mean an apocalyptic retirement for the human workforce. We can expect the emergence of new kinds of jobs like overseeing a cohort of robots from a control centre. These jobs with require advanced cognitive skills. Governments need to have a national plan for upskilling workforce for higher cognitive jobs in a digital era. 
Well before the pandemic, industry pundits forecasted that nearly half the jobs faced the risk of automation in future. In this new replacement economy, the robotisation of our workforce has simply been accelerated.
-Shalini Verma is CEO of PIVOT technologies

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