Will robots replace humans?

Robots 480p

Experts predict robots will take over 30% of our jobs within the next 10 years, but how close to the mark is this forecast? Leslie Willcocks and Mary Lacity from LSE’s Department of Management suggest a more nuanced work future.

Isaac Asimov, the grand master of modern science fiction, is credited with coining the term robotics in his classic 1950’s short story collection I, Robot. More than six decades later, the word is now in common usage but there’s nothing fictional about it.

Increasing numbers of businesses are now substituting humans with automated software to perform a myriad of structured, routine administrative tasks which do not rely on human judgement.

However, rather than shiny robots gliding around office buildings, as Asimov may have envisaged, the automation of certain tasks is made possible through reconfiguring existing software to do the job. These tasks involve transferring huge amounts of data from multiple sources such as email and spreadsheets to systems of record.

The jobs in question are high volume, highly repetitive and not suited to humans, who tend to make errors where robots do not, according to Leslie Willcocks, Professor of Technology, Work and Globalisation within LSE’s Department of Management.

“Robots are able to work on repetitive tasks tirelessly and continuously and in many businesses they are welcomed as valuable team members because they do the work that humans don’t want to do,” Professor Willcocks says.

Willcocks and his colleague Mary Lacity, a Visiting Professor at LSE, are researching the impact of “Robotic Process Automation” (RPA) in a number of UK companies and are finalising a book on the bigger picture of automation and the future of work, due to be published in February 2016.

The fears around robots replacing humans need to be tempered with the reality that new jobs will arise as others are ceded to machines, the academics say.

To date, the evidence shows that job losses as a result of RPA are minimal, except through natural attrition (people leaving and not being replaced).

“People who worry about job losses to automation tend to overlook the unprecedented explosion of data that businesses are experiencing,” Professor Willcocks says. “Far from being threatened, many workers have embraced the opportunity to take on more interesting work and view the robots as teammates.”

In one case study of the company Xchanging – a provider of IT, business and procurement services – Professor Willcocks said staff named the robots and even invited them to office parties.

“One robot called ‘Poppy’ (because the system went live on Remembrance Day in the UK) took over the laborious task of processing structured premiums from London’s insurance brokers. She adds supporting documentation, checks for errors, kicks out exceptions and adds validated information to the official market repository. The staff think of her as a ‘fresher,’ albeit an especially industrious one.”

While the jury is still out on the human impact of RPA, there is solid proof of the efficiencies that companies stand to gain by automating certain processes, Professor Willcocks says.

UK mobile communications provider Telefonica 02 deploys more than 160 robots to process up to 500,000 transactions each month, yielding a three-year return on investment of over 650%.

“More astounding, the company reached this scale by training only four people.”

The LSE academics also studied another company where 300 robots processed three million transactions, yielding a 200% ROI.

“This might sound like a recipe for headcount reduction but in the cases we studied, that didn’t happen,” Professor Willcocks says.

“The big takeaway from the case research we have done indicates that, as cost barriers fall, workplaces will naturally gravitate towards teams of humans and robots working together to accomplish goals, each assigned the tasks for which they are ideally suited. RPA is one automation tool, but not the only one, that will help bring about this future of operations.”

He says contrary to today’s worst fears, robotics could facilitate the rise – not the demise – of the knowledge worker if companies use their imagination.

“However, on a five to 10 year horizon, it is likely that changes in job types will also be accompanied by significant net job losses in some major occupations, but this will be attributable not just to robotics in service automation.”

Additional notes

Professor Leslie Willcocks and Professor Mary Lacity are finalising their book, Service Automation: Robots and The Future of Work (SB Publishing), which will be published in early 2016. It will cover six technological developments  that will in combination with cloud computing  and each other create massive impacts over the next 10 years on individuals, organizations and business, economic and social life. These six technological trends are mobile internet access, the automation of knowledge work, big data, the Internet of things, robotics and digital fabrication.

The two academics have conducted a series of case studies of the impact of RPA deployment, studying   such companies as Xchanging, Leeds Building Society, Telefonica/02 and other organizations in the utility, energy, financial services, and healthcare sectors.

Posted October 2015