Thursday 22 March 2018

Robots reach the boardroom and are tough bosses

Amid fears that automation will destroy jobs, workers are to be retrained for new challenges

A customer faces a humanoid robot at the reception desk of a hotel in Sasebo, Japan. The restaurant sector is facing especially rapid automation, with consequences for employment. Photo: Bloomberg
A customer faces a humanoid robot at the reception desk of a hotel in Sasebo, Japan. The restaurant sector is facing especially rapid automation, with consequences for employment. Photo: Bloomberg

Danielle Paquette

Marc Benioff, chief executive of the software company Salesforce, consults a regular guest at his senior-level meetings: a robot that doesn't hesitate to correct error-prone humans, he told an audience in Davos this week.

The AI robot, called Einstein, has had a seat at the table for about a year.

"I ask Einstein, 'I heard what everybody said, but what do you actually think?" Benioff said at the World Economic Forum, the annual gathering which brings together business and political leaders.

The robot recently raised doubts about one of his European employee's strategies, saying: "I don't think this executive is going to make their number, I'm so sorry," Benioff recounted in a tweet. Then the robot described the flaws that it saw in the employee's thinking.

The effect of automation on the workforce has been a key topic for leaders meeting in Davos this week. A WEF report on the eve of the meeting warned that automation could displace workers on a global scale and alter the nature of work across a variety of roles, exacerbating poverty and inequality.

"Automation has already been a disruptive labour-market force and its effects are likely to be long-lasting as new technologies diffuse throughout the global economy," the authors wrote. "For the foreseeable future, automation and digitalisation can be expected to push down on levels of employment and wages and contribute to increases in income and wealth at the top of the distribution."

An IMF report last year warned that 53pc of countries had experienced an increase in income inequality over the last three decades and the gap was widened the most in large countries, such as China, India and the US. The Forum report said this trend was partially driven by technology knocking people out of work and fattening the pockets of the world's richer citizens.

Popular fears about workers being entirely displaced by robots are overblown, said David Autor, an MIT economist who attended a discussion about worker retraining this week. Instead, the challenge will be helping workers adjust to how automation changes the quality of jobs, he said.

"This concern about the future - 'will there be jobs?'- is misplaced," Autor said.

"There is no evidence that we are running out of jobs. A harder question is whether there will be good-paying jobs."

Government and business leaders said last week that they were actively investing in retraining in order to help prepare workers for changes in the workplace. On Friday, Nestle, Nokia, Mercer, Barclays and Tata Consultancy Services announced a joint initiative to train 10 million workers over the next three years, according to a Forum spokesperson. Economists in Switzerland will follow the effort.

"Without reskilling, yes, things do look quite dire," said Saadia Zahidi, head of education, gender and work at the WEF, who helped come up with the idea and will be tracking the companies' progress. She added that people in declining jobs still did not have the skills needed in jobs with potential for growth.

Both public and private sectors must plan for this coming shift, Zahidi said. People should be able to find paths to gaining expertise for expanding jobs, such as nurses, data analysts and social media managers. They must also be able to work with computers, the backbone of the future economy, and harness human qualities that machines have trouble replicating.

Economists at the Forum also recommend rethinking the way that countries educate children. In classrooms across the west and Asia, students are taught to be more competitive than collaborative, a mind-set that could someday hurt their employment prospects, Zahidi said. Lesson plans that demand analysis, rather than memorisation, will also benefit the future workforce, she said.

"There's a greater premium than ever before on creativity, collaboration and critical thinking," she said.

Some business leaders used the gathering to showcase job-disrupting technologies.

Dmytro Kalita, head of sales at Kodisoft, a technology company in Ukraine, displayed a smart table at a party off the Davos main drag on Thursday night. The door-sized tablet, which looks like a giant iPhone screen, allows diners to order food and pay the bill without talking to another person.

The product is another entrant in a restaurant industry that is already beginning to use mobile apps and kiosks.

Kalita said restaurants in Canada, Japan and Greece had already ordered the tables, that sit two to four people and cost up to $15,000 (€12,000), or about the same as what a minimum-wage earner makes in a year.

"Initially, some restaurants, they will need less people," Kalita said. Then, he added, the product could heighten the demand for software designers and assembly workers.

Benioff, whose company uses artificial intelligence to track customer orders, urged other employers to be more transparent about the technology they plan to adopt, so that people can prepare for it.

"I'm increasingly worried that even as these technologies deliver incredible benefits to some, this wave of change will leave behind hundreds of millions of people around the world and exacerbate the dangerous inequalities that already plague our societies," he wrote in a Wall Street Journal column ahead of the Davos meeting.

However, President Donald Trump's delegation in Davos projected a sunnier outlook.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Labor Secretary Alec Acosta both said the US would be ready for the challenges posed by automation.

"History shows us that technology leads not to the alarmist scenarios posed by some, but rather, to innovation and advancement that make jobs safer, creates new opportunities and even new fields," Acosta said in a statement to the Post. "We need to focus our efforts on ensuring that the American workforce has the opportunities to develop the skills needed for the jobs of today and tomorrow."

This year, the Labor Department requested $732m to help people who have lost their jobs learn new skills for positions that are projected to grow. "Technology doesn't just shrink jobs," Ross told reporters last week, "it changes the nature of jobs."

The US officials' messages in Davos mark an evolution in the way that Trump's team has addressed the nation's future work climate.

The US President has long condemned companies that exploit cheaper labour in China and Mexico, but he has not been as vocal about automation-related disruption, which economists say drove most of the country's five million jobs losses in manufacturing since 2000.

The Washington Post

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