Humans vs Robots – automation in the workplace


12 Feb 2018

Humans vs Robots – automation in the workplace

The need to find and retain exceptional talent has always been a challenge. With the progression of technology, we are living in a more connected society and world today than ever before. A part of this is the advent and growth of automation in the workplace and how many are claiming that this is taking over or replacing jobs (often referred to as job-cannibalisation – spurred on by media headlines) that people would otherwise do – from your local supermarkets providing self-service checkout desk to self-service airline check-in desks.

The buck doesn’t just stop with retail and service industry related jobs – with the evolution of Artificial Intelligence (AI), robotics and in recent years the progress made with Machine Learning, we have seen how these notions have become an integral part of our lives and are even filling the skills-gaps in the workplace where there are shortages. AI and Machine Learning exist today in the form of spam folder filters, to Facebook feeds to Netflix TV show and movie recommendations based on your viewing history. Because of this substantive growth, there is a profound need for professionals with expertise in these areas – an exponential demand that has resulted in a skills shortage. Machines are now being use to replace this deficiency and are able to learn on the job using algorithms that learn from many, many examples and then make deductions (not always accurate, but can learn when a wrong choice is made). We see this today in credit card fraud detection (based in what a spam/fraudulent email could look like), and is even spanning into trading stocks and shares.

We have also seen a growth in robotics in more secretarial and customer interactive capacities, to help guide or direct people, and in some cases, even counselling. Despite the apparent and initial success, one fundament flaw that this form of automation possesses to this day is the lack of human emotion – the lack of being able to overlook a process or function that it has been programmed to do and connect on a ‘human’ level. This is one factor that set humans and robots apart, and how, to some extent (as far as can be expected or predicted) there will be a limit on its development and thus application.

As a result, this is one reason why executive search remains a critical function for many businesses – although AI and automation may refine and improve some of the recruitment/search processes, having that human connection, understanding and judgement to anticipate human expression, and verbal or non-verbal communication is key and cannot be replicated. Robotics/AI cannot understand and simulate all forms of human sensory science, nor pick up certain psychological and expressive cues prevalent in human emotion and then respond to them appropriately. These are crucial skills needed (fortunately for us here at Penna)  in executive search, in order to identify, excite and secure the best talent possible for a given client.

None of these technologies are going to ‘take over the world’ as the media has attempted to suggest – a piece of technology that simply makes deductions based on lots of examples is not going to suddenly sprout arms and legs. However, it does not mean that automation will not continue developing to a point where it becomes a more pronounced and integral part of our everyday lives. As Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai puts it, “[Artificial Intelligence is] something more profound than electricity or fire”. Other CEO/senior management teams of progressive blue-chip technology companies claim that evidence proves that people that work with computers earn more money and that jobs are not being lost, but being created, realigned and transitioned into other, new arenas. Gartner researchers suggest that eventually AI will go on to create more jobs than it eliminates by 2020. However, regardless of how you look at it, particularly in the shorter term, some markets will be affected such as the impact of driverless cars on the transportation and delivery industries, as well as the need for taxis.

There is no question that AI and automation will have an immense impact longer term on the job market. Technology shifts today move much more quickly than they used to, but these shifts are still gradual and fortunately foreseeable; foreseeable enough for us to anticipate changes, to better help us ‘evolve’ and manage the transition to re-organise and re-distribute workforces. It brings peace to mind when looking back to the changes and developments that technology brought society in the past and the immense improvements and benefits we have seen and experienced, from the introduction in use of heavy-machinery during the Industrial Age, to the use and applications of computers over the last 30-40 years. The resounding theme across these periods appears to be that we can accomplishment many more tasks and functions in less time – it is clear that automation in the workplace is no exception to this


Adrian Thomas
Consultant, Commercial Executive Search