What is the future of robots and cobots?

Future-spotting is a key strategic challenge for senior management. For those taking a forward-view, a new priority has emerged … how to react to the rise of the robots. Science fiction is fast becoming reality in manufacturing and service industries in the developed world. Businesses in Africa will have to follow suit if they hope to become competitive.

A 2016 study by the International Federation of Robotics says the number of robots sold globally with double to 400 000 units by 2018, with 70% of the demand coming from China, Japan, USA, South Korea and Germany.

World Bank research says Africa has two industrial robots per 100 000 manufacturing workers and massively lags the developed world, but cannot ignore the trend.

Jobs are a major focus point. A widely quoted 2016 study by Daron Acemoglu (MIT) and Pascal Restrepo (Boston University) suggested bots would merely trigger the creation of new, better jobs.

This year, they finished the first quantitative survey of job losses using real-world data. This less positive study shows bots cost 670 000 US manufacturing jobs between 1990 and 2007. In one local economy the academics scrutinised, each bot cut 6.2 jobs per 1000 workers.

Acemoglu and Restrepo say US bot sales are expected to quadruple, so job losses could mount.

Yet many companies that invest in robotics say they are hiring more as higher productivity drives company growth. People move to tasks with high value creation. Job losses at less automated competitors are hard to assess, however.

Should executives worry? As blue-collar jobs decline, will executive numbers be decimated by machines gunning for top jobs?

Not likely …

Any review of the literature confirms that humans always outscore machines when it comes to thinking, planning and decision-making. We can think ahead. They can’t, however today artificial intelligence needs to be taken into account. It is arguably a “which came first, the chicken or the egg”?

One commentator noted: “We can map out a series of steps that can lead us to a certain goal. This is what robots cannot do. They lack the ability to plan ahead of time.”

Machines are faster, more precise, more consistent and more productive. Pressure on repetitive manufacturing jobs is already evident. But service sectors are not immune.

One robotics application now flips burgers to consistent quality levels, with big implications for college dropouts who assume they can always get a job flipping burgers.

The lesson is simple. A good education and skills are essential for humans.

In a paper to the International Management Conference in Bucharest, D.M. Florian noted: “Studies suggest robots are increasing our wages, not stealing our jobs, though there has been a decrease in the number of positions at some companies. However, the need for more qualified positions has gone up…

“Technology has been proved to make humans smarter … A machine has no ability to assess situations and cannot look at a set of transactions and provide an overall picture of what they could mean.”

Florian concluded: “Robots will only be able to support the problem-solving structure. They cannot replace it.”

Many experts say man-versus-machine simplification is off the mark. Man with machine is more probable.

Growing sales of collaborative robots or cobots are reported worldwide.

Here, one area of development is wearable robotics or exoskeletons that augment human capabilities with technology. ABI Research says about 40 R&D groups currently work in the field – the basis for a “$2-billion global market by 2025”.

Military and healthcare applications are focus areas. So are industrial uses. Many firms are in the market for “motorised muscles” for heavy lifting or for sensor-actuated exoskeleton suits that “protect and serve” humans during dangerous work.

In all cases, a trained and skilled person is needed to operate the wearables, hinting at a future in which humans work with cobots in many areas.

Unskilled employment may therefore fall. You need skills to get the best out of cobots or “smart overalls” representing a big capex investment.

The highly trained, well-educated cobot co-worker will become a major contributor to productivity and profit.

Executives will still find ‘man’ management is a key part of their task, but a new managerial style may be needed in this high-skill, high-knowledge environment.

A very human, empathetic approach will be more appropriate than ‘command and control’. Ironically, the cobots could bring out our human side.

Auguste Coetzer is a Director of Signium Africa (previously Talent Africa).

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