Sunday 25 September 2016

Man versus machine: the battle of the workplace has begun

Thousands of jobs in the fast-food sector could face the chop - as an army of robots turn up the heat on the low-skilled, says Simon Rowe

Simon Rowe

Published 23/08/2015 | 02:30

Robots are having the last laugh as increasing automation means that they are set to displace or eliminate millions of traditional jobs.
Robots are having the last laugh as increasing automation means that they are set to displace or eliminate millions of traditional jobs.

Robots could be soon flipping burgers in your favourite fast-food joint, pulling pints in your local pub and emptying your bins.

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Welcome to the brave new world of the service robot, where machines work faster, harder and smarter than their human counterparts - and don't take smoke breaks.

As armies of increasingly sophisticated robots are unleashed in workplaces around the world, technologists like to trot out their well-worn joke: A robot walks into a bar, orders a drink and lays down some cash. The bartender says: "Hey, we don't serve robots."

And the robot says: "Oh, but someday you will."

The joke sounded funny a few years ago, but not any more. Robots are having the last laugh as increasing automation means that they are set to displace or eliminate millions of traditional jobs.

A new report by Irish-based business advisors Grant Thornton has put flesh on those fears. It suggests that rapid automation of business tasks and the introduction of robot technology could lead to an immediate 5pc cut to headcounts in manufacturing, technology and food sectors.

In an Irish context, this would result in thousands of jobs axed in the next 12 months - and that's before automation hits top gear.

Over half of the firms surveyed by Grant Thornton said they were either already automating business practices or may do so over the next 12 months.

"The findings pose fundamental questions about the implications of advancing technologies on the workforce," said Fergus Condon, a senior technology sector advisor at Grant Thornton.

"Companies are principally looking for greater accuracy and efficiency in production and enhanced flexibility to increase or decrease production.

"As businesses consider whether to invest in staff or machines, for many the latter is becoming the more cost-effective option."

In an era when phrases such as 'cost efficiency' and 'enhanced flexibility' are euphemisms for job cuts and zero-hour contracts, traditional employment sectors are braced for massive disruption caused by robots.

One leading exponent of robot technology in the fast-food sector doesn't mince his words about low-skilled workers facing the chop.

California-based Alexandros Vardakostas, inventor of the Burger-Bot - a machine that makes burgers faster than humans - says his device "isn't meant to make employees more efficient. It's meant to completely obviate them."

His firm's website boasts that the burger-making automaton "does everything employees can do, except better".

The machine manages the entire burger-making process, all the way from grinding the meat and stamping it into patties, to cooking it and sliding it between a bun with all the fillings. The robot is "more consistent, more sanitary, and can produce 360 hamburgers per hour" - that's one burger every 10 seconds.

Refusing to sugar-coat the bad news for fast-food workers, he says the next generation of the device, manufactured by his company Momentum Machines, will be even faster.

Gulp.

It's not hard to see why fast-food joints have become the next battle line in the war between robots and humans. About 30pc of the costs of fast-food restaurants go on salaries, so franchisers are aggressively looking for technology such as Burger-Bots or Kebab- making Doner-Bots that can allow them to produce more food faster with lower waste.

With the likes of McDonald's, Supermac's, Abrakebabra, Eddie Rocket's, Burger King and KFC employing more than 5,000 staff between them in Ireland, robot technology could lead to significant job losses at these fast-food giants.

And growing pressure to raise the minimum wage for low-paid workers will likely push more firms into the welcoming arms of robots.

Meanwhile "no sector or profession is immune," warns Condon.

"Technology is part of our lives in ways we couldn't have imagined two decades ago. That trend will continue and it means the shape and size of workforces of the future will look radically different to those of today."

The Irish Congress of Trade Unions, which represents about 600,000 workers in the Republic, says that it is not opposed to robot technology.

"Labour-saving devices and technology - robots included - are to be welcomed where that results in or creates higher-paid, higher-skilled work opportunities and is not used to displace people from work or to downgrade their conditions," said a spokesman.

But ICTU has warned that "technology that is proclaimed as 'labour-saving' often ends up producing the opposite result."

The trade union body has raised concerns over how 24-7 email access and 'always-on' smartphone technology encroaches on people's lives outside of their normal working hours.

ICTU praised a French labour agreement that requires employers to make sure staff "disconnect" outside of working hours.

Under the deal, which affects 250,000 employees in the technology and consultancy sectors (including the French arms of Google, Facebook, Deloitte and PwC), employees can avoid having to look at work-related material on their PCs or smartphones. And bosses must ensure their employees come under no pressure to do so.

In the current battle between man and machine, this is seen as one-nil to the humans.

And there is more good news. The Grant Thornton survey found that just 9pc of hospitality, education and healthcare firms expect 5pc or more of workers to be replaced.

So, regardless of the advances that robots are making, there are jobs they simply cannot do. And the more robots that are deployed in industry, the more need there will be for well-paid managers to operate and control them.

Indeed, while the dominant trend is of contracting employment in agriculture and manufacturing as a result of automation, these job losses are being more than offset by rapid growth in the caring, creative, technology and business services sectors.

Robotics is having a revolutionary effect in the global healthcare sector, for example.

The use of robot technology in hospital settings is easing the care burden on overworked nursing staff - and improving patient welfare. And Ireland is helping to usher in this new era of robot healthcare.

Researchers at NUI Galway have begun a €4m European research project aimed at managing patients through the use of 'caring' service robots.

The pilot study of how robots interact and help people with dementia is being run by NUI Galway's School of Nursing and Midwifery.

Prof Kathy Murphy says dementia sufferers will receive care from "humanoid robots" in a bid to develop innovative solutions to the health problem and help identify commercial opportunities for robot tech firms.

In fact, this week, Ireland is at the centre of the global debate over robot technology.

One of the world's top experts on how robots can transform lives jetted in to Dublin to address a packed conference in DCU.

Dr Ayanna Howard, the founder of US-based firm Zyrobotics and advisor to NASA and Intel, spoke at the HybridConf tech summit on how robot technologies can address real-life needs to improve our quality of life.

It's probably too early to predict, but at this rate it looks like it's two-nil to the humans - and things have only just kicked off.

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