The robot takeover and why your job is safe - for now

Written by Toby Knott

RBS are axing more than 500 jobs and replacing them with “robo advisers”. The Bank of England’s chief economist is saying that up to 15 million jobs are at risk of automation. Maybe it’s time to down our tools and just accept the robot takeover.

But let’s not be too hasty. The robots are coming but they’re more R2-D2 than Terminator.

Robot overlords colleagues

While automation technology has contributed to the loss of 800,000 low-skilled jobs in the last 15 years, it has helped replace them with 3.5 million higher-skilled ones.

What’s more, recent research by McKinsey has found that, rather than eliminating jobs wholesale, artificial intelligence and advanced robotics will take over discrete tasks across various occupations and sectors, thus redefining traditional roles, at least in the short term.

In other words, automation will likely augment and expand your role, not destroy it.

As machines take over the more routine, repetitive tasks, you get to focus on more meaningful work. You get to do those tasks that demand creativity and emotion.

Are you replaceable?

Automation will, of course, displace some workers, as new technology does. Just think of the effect of the motor car on farriers and the spinning jenny on weavers. But the potential for robotic disruption varies dramatically across different activities and sectors.

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McKinsey has helpfully put together a dashboard to show where machines can and can't currently replace humans. Across the sectors and occupations, activities ripe for automation are predictable physical tasks, data processing and data collection. The most resistant are in applying expertise and managing others.

Yet, it’s not just a simple divide between routine, manual work and intellectual work.

Take the example of BRETT, the Berkeley Robot for the Elimination of Tedious Tasks, who can fold your towel. Of course, you’ll have to wait a bit. After years of work on the project, the robot could fold one towel in a pulse-racing 20 minutes. So much for the robot takeover. While BRETT can now complete the task in a minute and a half, it’s still confounded by tangled socks – something a human could sort out in seconds without conscious thought.


Conversely, companies like Narrative Science and Automated Insights are using automation to disrupt journalism – very much a knowledge-intensive industry. Opinion pieces and deathless prose might be beyond the grasp of the machines for now, but they’ve all but killed off wire reporters and are making serious inroads into sports reporting.

In short, the more your job is like a messy laundry basket – whether it’s folding shirts or managing a 50-person team – the safer you are.

Learning to love the robot takeover

Whatever the precise scale of the robot takeover, automation is coming. You need to know how to manage an increasingly automated company.

The number of people actually fearful for their jobs in the short term appears relatively low, particularly amongst the younger generation, but it's important that you reassure your employees.

It's all too easy to get seduced by change, particularly as a business owner focused on the bigger picture and the rewards of such improvements.

But the effects of automation will be felt most keenly by those whose jobs and daily routines are displaced and disrupted, and you can't just tell them to "deal with it". While your employees will probably acknowledge the need for change, they may well be worrying about their future at the same time. You need to consult with your employees early on, communicate the opportunities automation can bring and get them invested in the change.

In short, you need a plan.

Planning for automation

  • Don’t rethink the roles in your company, rethink the activities. Think about which activities or tasks across the various roles in your company would benefit from automation. This could be anything from data entry by your human resources team to the CEO’s analysis of reports to inform operational decisions.
  • Map this against your workforce. You then need to consider how this added automation will alter the work of your employees. Will you need to redefine their roles and responsibilities? What will their new day-to-day routine look like? But this shouldn't just be a top-down diktat – ask your employees where they see new opportunities in their role.
  • Review your skills base. Increased workplace automation will require a reevaluation of skills, both in terms of developing those of current employees and scouting out the right new hires. Coding and engineering skills will undoubtedly become more important, but this brave new automated world doesn’t belong just to the tech savants. You also need to foster those human skills that machines can't match: emotional intelligence, leadership, entrepreneurialism and imagination. As the robot takeover becomes commonplace, these uniquely human abilities will become key competitive differentiators.

Take these three steps and think intelligently about how automation can slot into your company. It will prepare you for the benefits of automation – streamlining your business and giving you and your employees more time to focus on the stuff that matters.

Hat tip to Jeff and UC Berkeley for the photos.

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automation , Leadership , Robots , Technology , workplace automation