The Rise Of The Robots: Good For Business, Bad For The Country

Technology is rapidly moving forward. One area having a substantial impact on business productivity is Artificial Intelligence (AI) which is defined as computer systems performing tasks that require human intelligence. A good example of this is the growing use of robots in business.

The human cost – what jobs are at risk? 

Take Starbucks the global coffee shop chain. Software analyses sales trends and other data to schedule when baristas (specialist coffee making and selling employees) should go to work.  

Human resource (HR) functions are increasingly being taken over by AI. Research done by Oxford University predicts that 47% of the United States workforce could face having their jobs performed by computers.  Major jobs affected include loan officers, receptionists, legal assistants, bartenders and many aspects of the HR function.

Another area is mapping people’s movements as they go about their daily tasks. For example a hospital in Boston has reduced costs by analysing these activities and has both reduced patients’ time in hospitals and shown an improvement in overall health care. 

Many first world factories today use robots in the manufacturing process.

Technology has improved efficiencies and increased profitability to businesses. 

However, it has a human cost – the Starbucks system does not acknowledge times of day (e.g. it might be 11 p.m.) and human realities such as childcare. This has caused disgruntlement within the Starbucks labour force. In addition, there are issues of human privacy in mapping staff’s actions. Undoubtedly these issues will be solved as the potential is too attractive to disregard.

South Africa: Time for action

Clearly, these trends are impossible to ignore and are - and will continue to be - a boon to business. They also benefit nations with strong education and good skill sets.

However in South Africa with our poor education, low skills and official unemployment at 25%, AI threatens to further undermine the country’s social fabric as job losses have the potential to cause more unrest. In the long term fixing the education system along with short-term interventions such as labour reform will better prepare the unskilled segment in South Africa.

What is clear is that some form of action is required. Technology is not going to wait for South Africa to address its problems.

So will robots be our future bosses?   

Presently, the consensus is that AI relieves a manager of his/her simple tasks. AI does not understand human needs (see Starbucks above) and does not have the judgement a person has. However, technology is making rapid strides and in the longer term, AI will take on more management tasks. Already there are experiments being undertaken in the workplace. One interesting piece of research shows that people are receptive to being given instructions by robots.  

Does your business planning take account of these future realities?
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