May 31, 2017
In the past several months, I’ve given 10 talks on robotic process automation (RPA), its relationship to AI, and its future effect on jobs. These talks were mostly at tech conferences where the audience is a mix of corporate and government technology and business leaders. The industries represented are diverse, as is the process focus and expertise. But the participants are similar in important ways. They are excited, if not well-informed, about the potential of AI and robotics; the average IQ in the room seems well above average; and they all will benefit either professionally or financially from the progression of robotics.
No shame in making money; I wish I’d made more. But there is more then a hint of nervous discomfort just below the surface that stems from the removal of humans from the workforce. There are many cute references to taking the robot out of the human; this is supposed to mean that we are using humans essentially as robots, and the less we do that, the better off they will be. But the fact is that many workers today are good at routine tasks, feel productive, and may lack the mental quickness for other work. Several firms have given human names to their new digital workers, as if calling them Yoda or Jennifer will make them more accepted by the people they are replacing.
RPA Targets The Cubicle Working Class
AI building blocks will affect all working-class categories in the US, including retail and food (17 million), blue-collar workers (11 million), and the caring class (the fastest-growing segment). But RPA takes a singular focus on the working-class folks who toil in cubicles. This comprises about 9 million workers in the US and falls into two categories: sales-related (think customer service) and administrative (think back-office). These categories align with two broad use case definitions in RPA. “Attended mode” is where a human interacts with the digital worker (or bot); this is the customer service use case. “Unattended mode” is where the human is completely replaced by the digital worker. Over the next five years, we expect RPA-fueled digital workers to replace about 4 million cubicle positions.
What this means should concern us all. Firstly, cubicle workers, who largely have high-school diplomas, will be tossed into the contingent workforce or left unemployed. Only a small percentage will have the right stuff for the digital economy, even given programs like SOAR in Kentucky, which retrains coal miners.
Ironically, the working class largely voted for Trump, who told them that immigrants were taking their jobs. And surely some are, but let’s be honest: It’s not the immigrants the working class should fear, it’s mostly the people I’m speaking to at these conferences. The tech industry and business leaders should be more honest about what we are doing and not try to paint it as benefiting the working majority. This will put the energy we need to ramp skills in change management and redefine roles to provide respect and self-esteem for the working class. Take a look at our report The Future Of White-Collar Work: Sharing Your Cubicle With Robots.