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Automation, Robotics, and the Future of Productivity

The advent of new technologies is without a doubt going to reshape the world in ways that we have never seen before and only imagined through the works of science fiction. Just like Da Vinci dreamt up a helicopter almost four hundred years before one was actually created, works such as Isaac Asimov’s Robot series may yet become reality in the not-so distant future, writes Oliver Taylor.

In fact, artificial intelligence powered machines have already had a major impact on our society in the 21st century and while humanoid robots do not yet walk the streets amongst us, the change is real and we have already set foot into the beginnings of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. 

Built on the advancements achieved during the Third Industrial Revolution, also known as the Digital Revolution that made the shift towards digital technologies such as personal computers, information technology and the internet over the past 30-40 years, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is defined by developing new ways to implement technology into our society. It includes such breakthrough inventions as robotics, The Internet of Things, 3D printing, artificial intelligence, nano and biotechnology, autonomous vehicles and quantum computing. 

Our lives have become inseparably linked to computers, in many cases - portable ones, that help with everyday tasks and enable indispensable communication. Beyond personal usage, those same technologies have also entered the workplace and changed the way people work and how people are served. 

Gradually, ‘intelligent’ self-service screens have made their way into major fast food chains, reducing employee workload as well as customer wait time, manual jobs such as construction and transportation are transitioning towards robotic automation, and even areas such as finances, accounting, law and health are turning to advanced artificial intelligence systems. 

The workplace is most certainly going to change and it is quite possible that in 10 years it will be nothing like the one we know today. While the insane notion of the AI singularity and the merger of man and machine may even be a couple of decades away, computers are already performing certain tasks much more efficiently than their human counterparts ever could. 



The set of skills that people will have to learn during their studies will thus also drastically alter in order to adapt to the new setting. While people often talk about human workers being entirely substituted by AI systems, the more likely outcome is to have employees working as a team with the robots, in which case, we will have to learn to live alongside the machines and use their strengths to empower our own. However the prognosis of a robot-driven future still raises valid questions and concerns: will automation result in mass unemployment? Will robots have rights? What will happen when the AI becomes entirely autonomous? And most importantly, will productivity be maximised at the cost of sacrificing human capital?

At first, the concern was mainly for manual jobs, however as the abilities of the AI grow in efficiency and variety, other sectors have actively been employing the new technologies for their benefit. Retail shopping is a good example of how these advancements have changed both the workplace and the client experience. Grocery stores, much like fast food chains as mentioned above, have long equipped themselves with automated cashiers where customers can checkout with the help of a screen. 

Recently, Amazon Go has taken it to the next level, introducing the first store without money, cashiers or lineups, which functions with a simple app on a mobile device and allows people to simply walk in, pick their products and leave, while cameras and advanced recognition algorithms automatically charge the selected items on the client’s credit card. While this system has done away with the need for cashiers, it still requires human workers to make and package the food, fill the shelves and help customers. 

Similar trends are to be expected in other areas, such as hospitals where medical secretaries can be replaced by portable monitoring devices that track a patient’s vitals and help nurses by automatically deciding on the correct dosage. The finance industry would equally benefit from the AI, as it would facilitate the processing of data and greatly reduce the time it takes firms to complete such tasks as reviewing mortgages. In addition to saving time, both the health and the finance sectors would also enjoy higher accuracy, less inconsistency and mistakes, that are otherwise inevitable with a human workforce. 

In customer service, the AI is already being programmed to pinpoint customer needs based on detection algorithms, and to suggest relevant fixes for its human operators. In law, some firms already make use of advanced technology to aid with collecting and managing legal documents, in order to save precious time by cutting down on the labour of having to manually go through the paperwork. In marketing, advances in AI cognitive capabilities contribute to increased sales leads as well as advertising, personalised for potential clients. 

Visibly, the purposes for robotics are many and their usefulness in optimising productivity while minimising the time dedicated to repetitive labour is undisputed. The developments of Industry 4.0, however, are not without risks, doubts and concerns. For instance, on a global scale, several regions potentially stand at a loss, particularly emerging markets whose fortune relies on the production of raw materials. No longer needing countries with a low labour cost, many major companies could be relocating back to their home countries, opting out of outsourcing, which could negatively impact the economy of developing countries.



Regarding unemployment, which is probably the most feared aspect of global robotisation, the rise of artificial intelligence could halve the rate of employment and put countless people out of jobs. As computers learn to perform almost any task previously filled by a human worker, with even greater efficiency and shorter delay, companies will be replacing their sentient workforce with artificial intelligence.

What will then happen to all the people who end up without work? Some claim that it will allow people to have a lot more free time to enjoy leisure and further their own projects instead of giving their time to the benefit of a company. However, not everyone agrees with this point of view. An excess of leisure has its own dangers, as the lack of duties could lead to personal degradation for people who do not necessarily have an entrepreneurial spirit. 

Though that is not the worst case scenario, because if the shift towards a robotic workforce is poorly managed by the countries where it takes place, the people that have been laid off could end up not with too much leisure, but no means to provide for themselves. You can only imagine the type of unrest and societal destabilisation that it would cause.

Furthermore, robotics also open the door for a whole other level of military applications, which could change war forever. If anything, killer robots are exactly the stuff of post-apocalyptic sci-fi plots. Already, armed drones are becoming commonplace amongst country arsenals and they are becoming increasingly more autonomous and just like driverless vehicles, they could be deployed to seek and destroy targets of their own accord.



On the other hand, the same technology can come in quite handy for protection against attacks, so it’s only natural that governments have already jumped on the occasion to develop new artificial intelligence based weapons and defence mechanisms. 

Regardless of how it turns out, one thing is for sure: the progress of technology is not going to stop and despite the fears and concerns, we should be gearing up to welcome more robots into our everyday lives in the next few decades. While they may cost people their jobs in the future, companies developing artificial intelligence systems are also a good way to boost gains through investment. 

Companies like Boston Dynamics, Google, iRobot, Epson Robots, Liquid Robotics, Honeywell, Roper Technologies, Fanuc, Amazon and others are without a doubt going to yield high returns from their involvement into technology. Although it’s also important to consider the fact that while they are reaping profits from leading the game at the moment, down the line, it is not unlikely that companies with less visibility at the moment may rise to new heights in the future, offering high-risk/high-reward opportunities for investors.

The bottom line is, people will have to adapt to the technological advancement while technology adapts to serve the people. For employees, now may be a good time to start considering how their careers will be affected, for it could come to a point where they will have no choice but to sink or swim. For business owners, it is a good time to consider how their company will adapt and compete with others in the age of automated labour. For investors - to study the market and make educated bets on the most profitable opportunities, and finally, for governments - to make sure that their legislative framework stays relevant with the new regime.   EG


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