Before a Robot Takes Your Job, You’ll Be Working Side By Side


Before a robot takes your job, you’re likely to be working with one side-by-side.

That’s the takeaway from a new report by Forrester Research, Inc.

The report wades into a heady and long-running debate over whether, how, and to what extent will robots take over human jobs – a hotly discussed topic amid recent progress in robotics and artificial intelligence. Most experts agree that machines will depress the job market in coming decades, possibly by as much as 47%, according to a widely reported 2013 Oxford paper.

Forrester takes a less dire view. Examining workforces at large companies across industries, including Delta Airlines Inc., Whole Foods Market Inc., and Lowe’s Companies Inc. as well as many startups, analyst J.P. Gownder estimated that automation would erase 22.7 million US jobs by 2025 — 16% of today’s total. However, that decline would be offset somewhat by new jobs created, making for a net loss of 7%, or 9.1 million jobs.

Ultimately, robots would drive a social revolution, Mr. Gownder found, but not the one people fear. His point isn’t the number of jobs lost to robots, but an accumulation of smaller shifts that will transform the nature of work.

Mr. Gownder’s definition of a robot is expansive, spanning both physical robots that do manual labor such as attending assembly lines or scurrying around warehouses, such as Inc.’s Kiva bots, and software like IBM’s Watson, which aims to perform intellectual tasks like proffering medical diagnoses or culinary recipes based on large amounts of data.

Of course, the rise of robots would create some degree of employment, the report noted. People whose jobs were replaced by robots could find themselves working in robot repair. For every 10 jobs consumed by automation, one new job would be created in software, engineering, design, maintenance, support, or training.

The remaining nine jobs would be wrung from a wide variety of industries and roles. Office support, construction, and sales would suffer the greatest impact, the report found. Self-help services would replace cashiers, retail salespeople, and real estate brokers and agents. Repair workers, plumbers and electricians would fall to smart household gadgets.

The seeds of such changes are already evident in customer-service professions, the report observed. Robots deliver room service to guests at Aloft hotels. Kiosks, not humans, take orders at Schlotzsky’s Deli in Austin, Texas. Lowe’s hardware chain is testing Oshbot, a robotic sales assistant that can answer questions, show customers a map of the store, or lead them directly to the products they seek.

Likewise in industrial transportation. Humans continue to do the complex picking and packing, Mr. Gownder says, but machines are taking over the heavy lifting. Robots built by the startup Aethon ferry heavyweight materials and hazardous waste. Their mechanical cousins from Fetch Robotics follow humans around carrying goods for them.

Mr. Gownder leaves open the question whether the social benefits of automation outweigh the human costs. Software that writes stories about quarterly earnings reports of corporations may free up journalists to write about meatier topics — but some journalists who wrote earnings reports find their jobs in jeopardy. Car-parking robots from Boomberang relieve humans of a monotonous job but also deprive them of the opportunity to perform it. In the end, employers will make the decision.

The immediate question for companies, however, is not how to replace workers with machines but how to integrate them into the workforce. Managing a staff that’s part human, part robot is bound to take some getting used to.

“Companies will need to lobby governments to fund education and vocational training to provide people with the skills to work well with robots,” the report said.


Before a Robot Takes Your Job, You’ll Be Working Side By Side