Happy Labor Day! You Will Be Replaced by Robots, Automation (or Not)

Mike Togle
May 1, 2017

In a restaurant of the Huis Ten Bosch Amusement Park in Japan, diners are treated to a glimpse of the future: instead of a person cooking their food, it is done by a robot.

Automation in diners in Japan is not a new thing. But the robot chef of Henn-na restaurant is no mere gimmick. It is part of a project, funded by the Japanese government, to, as Financial Times correspondent Kana Igaki notes, “examine which kitchen and food processes should be automated and which should be left to humans.”

This is not something limited to the Japanese and their use of Automation to deal with their aging population. As advancements in robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) continue apace, we are starting to create machines and programs that can do certain jobs formerly performed only by humans.

In fact, in some cases, the machines and programs can do better.

The Guardian’s Justin McCurry reports how Japanese firm Fukoku Mutual Life Insurance made use of an AI system for payout calculations to policyholders.

“Fukoku Mutual Life Insurance believes it will increase productivity by 30% and see a return on its investment in less than two years,” McCurry writes. “The firm said it would save about 140m yen (£1m) a year after the 200m yen (£1.4m) AI system is installed this month. Maintaining it will cost about 15m yen (£100k) a year.”

But what might be good for the bottom line is not necessarily good for the labor force. In the Fukoku AI project alone, 34 of its staff were made redundant by the move. Within the Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) industry, the specter of replacing many tasks with narrow AI worries employees, employers, and even policymakers.

Sherwin Pelayo, the head of Pointwest Labs, the company’s new products and services incubator, suggests that one should not view automation as competition but as a means to assess our true contribution to the organization.

“There is so much fear in automation nowadays especially with the thought of losing one’s job,” Pelayo said. “What automation does, however, aside from making manual things faster, is it forces us to re-evaluate the value we bring in our jobs.”

This can be seen in a Proof of Concept (POC) that Pointwest did for a client in the US regarding the use of Robot Process Automation (RPA). Although the POC calls for a narrow AI robot to handle certain tasks in Pharmacy Benefits Management, humans still play a role, and a significant one at that.

Not only does the POC recommend an “assisted” RPA, which means a human still oversees the work being done by the AI, but Pointwest also calls for the creation of an RPA Center of Excellence. It is to both administer the RPA implementation and ensure it remains up to date, given the rapid rate of development in that field.

One school of thought on Automation says that it is actually freeing humanity from low-end repetitive tasks so we can focus on tasks that require our creativity and higher-end reasoning. Programs, after all, can only do what they were encoded to do.

Even our most advanced AI depend on learning and reasoning techniques that rely on pattern recognition, not true cognition. They can only act and react based on these patterns.

Humans are not so constrained.

Pointwest’s Sherwin Pelayo emphasizes this point by asking if Automation, instead of being viewed as a competitor for jobs, should be viewed as something that helps us go for a higher calling.

“Wouldn’t having this sense of higher and deeper value of one’s self make automation an ally rather than a foe?”Sherwin Pelayo, Pointwest Labs Head


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