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Robotic technologies against human employment, skills divide global CEOs

The exponential growth in robotic technology and associated business automation, though good, is shocking a sizable proportion of the global business leaders in both developed and developing economies.

While recent research by PwC found that workers were optimistic about technology improving their job prospects, CEOs admit that helping employees retrain, and increasing transparency on how automation and artificial intelligence (AI) could impact jobs is becoming a more important issue for them.

Only yesterday in London, the UK’s first cyborg shop assistant was sacked by its employer barely one week of deployment due to “incompetence,” suggesting the much-feared AI takeover may still be some way off.

Fabio, the Pepper robot produced by Japanese company, Softbank, was hired as a retail assistant at a Margiotta supermarket in Edinburgh, Scotland, as part of an experiment run by Heriot-Watt University for the BBC documentary, Six Robots & Us.

“We thought a robot was a great addition to show the customers that we are always wanting to do something new and exciting.

“Unfortunately, Fabio didn’t perform as well as we had hoped. People seemed to be actually avoiding him,” Elena Margiotta, who runs the family-owned company, said.

Fabio failed to help customers, telling them beer could not be found “in the alcohol section,” rather than directing customers to the location of the beer.

He was soon demoted to offer food samples to customers but failed to compete with fellow human employees.

“Conversations didn’t always go well. An issue we had was the movement limitations of the robot,” Margiotta said. “It was not able to move around the shop and direct customers to the items they were looking for.”

It wasn’t all bad for Fabio, though, as the robot proved popular with his fellow employees. This came as a surprise to the researchers.

Experts say robotics deals with the design, construction, operation, and use of robots, as well as computer systems for their control, sensory feedback, and information processing. These technologies are used to develop machines that can substitute for humans and replicate human actions.

Two-thirds of CEOs globally, compared to 67% in South Africa, believe they have a responsibility to retrain employees whose roles are replaced by technology. In order to prepare for the digital age, the majority of CEOs (91%) compared to 90% of CEOs in South Africa, strongly agree that they need to strengthen soft skills such as teamwork and communication alongside digital skills.

More than two-thirds of South African CEOs say they are taking action on a number of fronts – ranging from the way they work, to engaging external service providers and improving remuneration and training for their staff.

Already, CEOs are divided over whether future economic growth will benefit the many or the few who were able to transit to technology.

Echoing the theme of the 2018 World Economic Forum, CEOs acknowledge that we live in a fractured world. They are divided over whether future economic growth will benefit the many or the few. They see the world moving towards new, multifaceted metrics to measure future prosperity.

PwC said “CEOs across every region and country recognise that the world is moving away from measuring prosperity primarily through financial measures (e.g. GDP) and towards a more integrated approach that ‘measures prosperity through multifaceted metrics (e.g. quality-of-life indices).” Defining those metrics and capturing the data to accurately measure them will be a priority item on the business agenda in the coming years.

Examining the key challenges to trust for businesses, 60% of CEOs globally admit that delivering results in shorter periods of time (South Africa: 71%) is a challenge. There has also been a significant shift with the majority reporting higher levels of pressure to hold individual leaders to account (Global: 51%; South Africa: 83%), including for misconduct. Over a third report more pressure from employees and customers to take political and social stances (Global: 38%; South Africa: 78%).