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Humans vs Robots: The future of warehouse, logistics, and recruitment?

Published: Thursday 18th May 2017

Human shaking a robots hand

A recent study by PwC suggests that more than 10 million UK workers are at high risk of being replaced by robots within 15 years. Another study by Deloitte showed that the wholesale/retail and transport sectors had the highest number of jobs with a high chance of automation.

The warnings are not new. And the sectors affected are many – it’s not just the obvious ones. What about recruitment? Massive strides have been made with software, systems and artificial intelligence to automate the recruitment process. How far can it go? Is the recruitment sector a less obvious but also high-risk sector? Whether we like it or not, the use of robots is in many industries is rising, but what is the reality of this? Are unemployment rates likely to skyrocket in these industries? We delve further into this throughout this article.

I, Robot

With the introduction of self-service machines, robots, delivery drones and smart software, it is understandable that many workers are starting to worry about the security of their jobs. In industries such as warehousing and delivery/logistics, many of the processes are (or can be) automated, so this means that robots are much more feasible. With jobs like this which don’t require decision making, it can be much cheaper and more efficient to use robots rather than humans. With jobs that do require decision making it can be more accurate and efficient to use AI systems.

The investment of robots is far from cheap; however, in the long term, it is far more cost effective than using humans. Robots can work without getting tired or bored, so productivity is always high and they don’t require breaks or a wage at the end of the month. There is also less room for errors when using robots, compared to humans for repetitive tasks. The use of robots is not just hearsay, it has already started happening in warehouses. Multinational electronics contract manufacturing company Foxconn have already started using artificial intelligence to replace 60,000 workers in their factories, although they still employ more than 1 million people. Amazon also use robots in their warehouses to work alongside humans, although evidence suggests that these are used to make order picking easier for humans, rather than completely replacing their jobs. Ashley Robinson, a spokesperson for Amazon said “We are able to create more technician-type roles in the [robotic] fulfillment centers that pay differently than an hourly associate.” She added “There is a level of technology and algorithms that people in those facilities would be working with.” Interestingly, the number of robots being used by Amazon has increased from 1,400 to 45,000 in only the last few years, but they have still been recruiting at the same level over this period.

Should we be worried?
“Open the pod bay doors, HAL”
“I’m afraid I can’t do that, Dave”

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

There is a lot of scaremongering about artificial intelligence and how it will take over our jobs. With predictions from the World Economic Forum stating that over 7 million jobs will be at risk due to advances in technology in the next five years, it is understandable that workers in these industries might be more than a little concerned about their future prospects. However, it is worth remembering that the ability of robots is fairly limited. Yes, they has the potential to take over monotonous jobs in warehouse and perhaps some delivery jobs, however, it may give humans greater scope to be involved in more demanding and challenging roles. Eliminating these types of roles may actually create better opportunities and there is evidence to support this. E-commerce retailer, Boxed have invested in robots to slowly eliminate the need for ‘pickers’, but instead of the workers losing their jobs, they are actually being promoted. Not a single person has lost their job because of the robots, and many have moved into better, more demanding roles. Much of the decision on replacing humans with robots depends on the vision of each individual company. As the CEO of Boxed, Chieh Huang, put it “They can dispose of them, or retrain them and move them into new roles.” With the introduction of robots, businesses are able to reduce costs, which means more customers and the need for humans to be involved in other tasks. In many ways, robots will take over jobs that humans don’t really want to do anyway.

Human touch
“If you had an off switch, Doctor, would you not keep it secret?”
Data, Star Trek The Next Generation (1994)

Although the introduction of robots has increased rapidly over the last few years and has become more widely publicised, it is not a new mechanism and there are many cases where robots haven’t been able to efficiently perform the jobs they were intended for. An example of this is with a restaurant in China, who attempted to cut costs by using a robot waiter in place of a human. This didn’t end well, as the robots had limited lifting capabilities and were not able to communicate with humans effectively. There have also been cases where drones have caused safety issues. For example, a drone recently caused safety concerns, which resulted in a fire-fighting aircraft being forced to ground. There is still a need for the human touch and it remains to be seen as to whether using robots for some tasks, will be more costly and dangerous than retaining humans to undertakes these jobs.

The Risks
“Never send a human to do a machine’s job.”<br
Agent Smith, The Matrix (1999)

It is important though to look at the existence of robots from both sides. In the case of low-skilled jobs such in the manufacturing and logistics industries being replaced with high-skilled jobs, there is a concern that low earners will be the ones likely to suffer. There is no guarantee, for example, that warehouse workers would have the ability to move into more technical jobs. It is a positive consideration in theory, however, the realities may be a lot different. A report by financial company Citi says “forecasts suggesting that there will be 9.5 million new job openings and 98 million replacement jobs in the EU from 2013 to 2025. However our analysis shows that roughly half of the jobs available in the EU would need highly skilled workers.” Aside from abilities, the potential financial implications for low skilled workers to move into high skilled jobs may not be realistic. Businesses would need to be prepared to invest in training for low skilled workers to retrain and this is an approach which is unlikely to apply to the bulk of businesses.

The Future
“Oh my goodness. Shut me down. Machines building machines. How perverse”
C-3PO, Star Wars Attack of the Clones (2002)

Robots have existed since the 1950’s and predictions about the catastrophic effects upon the workforce have been documented as far back as this. However, although robots have continued to become more advanced, they have yet to take over jobs in the way that the media would have us believe. If business owners choose to look at robots in the right way, they will not be introducing them as a means of cutting jobs, but rather, as a way to enhance the skills of their workers and further develop their business in other ways.

To contrast the naysayers, you need to look no further than the manufacture of the Raspberry Pi at the Sony plant in South Wales. This is a perfect example of automation creating more jobs by enhancing and improving the business. Automation and savings in logistics led the production of the Raspberry Pi to be brought back to the UK – what is known as ‘reshoring’ – and led to the creation of more jobs. The robots are here, but they may well become our best friends.


Robots are coming for your job — but maybe that’s okay


Robots and the Workplace: The Past, the Present, and the Future

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