Will a robot take my job? 3 steps to overcoming human concerns about automation, AI and robotics

SEP 01, 2021

Image: iStock/Besjunior

Every implementation of artificial intelligence, automation and robotics should include a plan for the human acceptance of technology adoption.

Two-thirds of Americans (65%) expect that robots and computers will "definitely" or "probably" perform jobs that are currently done by humans, according to a study by Monster.com. There is understandable trepidation. But a more significant issue arising in organizations as they adopt robotics, artificial intelligence and automation is change. Do companies have the will to change when change can affect existing business flows that have worked for years or even decades?

"Many companies do subscribe to the saying, 'If it's not broken, don't fix it,'" said Jim Rock, CEO at Seegrid, a developer of mobile robots and software for material handling in manufacturing and distribution. "The fear of change and newer technology is often a main driver in hesitancy to adopt tools that could make processes faster, safer and more efficient."

Nevertheless, to keep pace with customer demands and offset a decreasing labor pool, companies are realizing that continuing to operate as they have isn't sustainable. The disruptions of the past 18 months, brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, have exposed those vulnerabilities and brought the need for automation to the forefront.

Companies are also less reluctant about adopting automation, AI and robotics than they used to be. They know now that they can go to RaaS (robots-as-a-service) vendors that have the on-staff expertise and that will only charge them for service on a subscription basis. Because of this, companies can operationalize automation and robotics in their budgets instead of having to incur enormous upfront capital expenses that they have to amortize over years.

Being able to operationalize automation and robotics costs takes much of the risk out of budgeting. The other budget selling point is the compelling ROI that CFOs like to see.

"A general baseline for justifying something like an autonomous mobile robot investment is to look at the costs that go into the manual workflows that you will automate," Rock said. "This can include adding the number of manually driven machines (forklifts, pallet trucks and tow tractors), and multiplying by the number of shifts and the pay rate of the workers needed to operate them. With this, a comparable AMR fleet that would do the same work would typically deliver a payback in less than two years. In addition to that, the more reliable throughput from automation offers increased productivity and reduced production downtime. Workers who were part of the manual operation can be reallocated to new, value-added roles."

But what about these workers and their own anxieties about automation, robotics and job loss? In this area, IT and the end business can take proactive steps to ease anxiety and obtain employee buy-in.

  1. Engage employees upfront early. Bring them into an AI, robotics or automation project when it is still in a concept stage. If the company adopts robotics, AI and automation, how could these technologies eliminate daily headaches on your job? Ask them about their work. How would they alter workflows? How would you redesign workflows to take advantage of automation and robotics so they would augment what you're doing?
  2. Employees need a vision of what their futures will look like. "Contrary to what some headlines say, robots are not eradicating people's jobs," Rock said. "There is simply more work than there are people available to do it. When it comes to manufacturing, warehousing and distribution, automation and autonomous mobile robots enable workers in repetitive, dangerous and non-value-added positions to move upward within their company into more interesting, safe and rewarding roles. Automation ultimately drives business growth, creating more jobs."
  3. A company must invest in employee training. For instance, if you are implementing an AMR fleet, employees must be trained to manage and operate that fleet. This involves classroom education, live virtual training sessions, vendor support and 24/7 access to an online training program that contains courses, materials and resources.

Continually communicating with employees as you work hand-in-hand with them builds trust and facilitates change. These are not skills that IT and the end business usually excel at, but they are the ground game in moving companies and employees forward into an acceptance and ultimately an embrace of automation, AI and robotics.