Robotic Disruption and the Rise of the Machines

It’s certainly no news bulletin that digital technologies are disrupting the business world. Machines, including robots, handle a growing array of tasks. AP now uses robot journalists to write basic stories about earnings and sports results, manufacturers use robots to assemble products, and a few hotels now use these devices to deliver meals and other items to rooms.

Yet, all of this is only the beginning. A report from consulting firm McKinsey & Co., Where Machines Could Replace Humans — and Where They Can’t (Yet), noted that industries such as manufacturing, food service and retailing will see a massive wave of robotic disruption over the next several years. Health care and education are among the few industries relatively immune to the change.

According to the report, which examined more than 2,000 work activities for more than 800 occupations, 59 percent of all manufacturing jobs could be automated away. Within specific fields such as welding, cutting and soldering, the figure rises to about 90 percent. In food services, 73 percent of tasks could be automated based on existing technologies.

Yet, the report also noted that robotic automation isn’t fait accompli. Just because it’s possible to automate an activity doesn’t mean an industry or business will do so. If a cheap, plentiful labor supply exists, companies may opt to use humans rather than machines. What’s more, some industries and businesses will likely see partial automation take hold. A combination of people and machines will be used.

There’s certainly been a lot written and discussed when it comes to AI, robotics and automation. This includes serious questions about what service workers and others lacking advanced skills and knowledge will do in the digital economy. At some point, society must address these questions or we will likely run the risk of political and social strife that makes today’s events seem tame by comparison.

And regardless of your views on robotics and AI — personally, I find the idea simultaneously intriguing and disturbing — CIOs and others must begin to grapple with these issues and understand what the optimal mix of tech and humans is at any given moment. For example, I’d be happy to receive a fast food order from a robotic system (and I already love ordering coffee or sandwiches ahead for takeout using a mobile app) but there’s no way I’d ever tolerate such as system in a sit-down restaurant. Frankly, I don’t think any of us ever want to completely lose the human element.

Samuel Greengard
Samuel Greengard
Samuel Greengard writes about business, technology and other topics. His book, The Internet of Things (MIT Press) was released in the spring of 2015.

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