In the 1956 science fiction horror flick, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a small-town doctor learns that alien duplicates are replacing the population of his community. Alien plant spores fall from space and grow into large seedpods, each one capable of reproducing a duplicate replacement copy of everyone in town. As each pod reaches full development, it assimilates the physical characteristics, memories and personalities of each towns person. Everyone is looking over their shoulders wondering if they’ll be duplicated next. The horror movie ends on a pessimistic note: “Where you gonna go, where you gonna hide? Nowhere . . . cause there’s no one like you left.”
Are you ready for “Robomageddon?” Robotics and advanced automation continue to spread throughout the American workplace where workers express conflicting and sometimes flatly contradictory attitudes about the impact these new technologies will have on their lives?
Where You Gonna Go, Where You Gonna Hide?
Could you be duplicated next? You better look over your shoulder because the use of AI is gaining traction in the business world even finding a foothold in the mental health arena to alleviate cognitive overload, compassion fatigue and employee burnout. Some of the world’s top companies such as MetLife and Humana are employing innovative new technology to offset burnout by enhancing employee engagement, improving customer experience and providing a more emotionally intelligent and empathetic workplace. In October of 2019, Thrive Global acquired Boundless Mind, a neuroscience-based artificial intelligence company to advance its core mission to help employees and corporations unlock human potential and shape technology for health, well-being and productivity behavior change.
Cogito Corporation, a software company, employs an AI coach to reduce the high rates of burnout among call center workers, caught between customers who are often frustrated and management who is under pressure to achieve corporate goals. The coach analyzes human behavior through voice and provides in-the-moment feedback during conversations. The software provides nudges to call-center agents via the display of in-the-moment cues—for example a coffee cup when energy is low or a heart when a customer’s emotional state changes, indicating a need for empathy. It guides agents during conversations to be more emotionally intelligent, which takes some of the cognitive burden off of them and helps better control conversations. It also helps them lead customers through challenging situations without taking on the emotional burden. The nudges Cogito applies lead to positive behavior change that helps the agent and the customer while driving operational value for the organization.
Are You Indispensable?
In its third annual national study the ed-tech firm, MindEdge/Skye Learning, surveyed 1,017 U.S. workers about the state of robots and automation in the workplace. The study known as Preparing for Robot Colleagues: A New Decade of Robomageddon, found that nearly 32% of American employees report that advanced technology–including robot workers, AI and analytics–has been introduced into their workplaces in the past year. Of these employees, 76% feel the new automation has made their jobs easier. And survey respondents do not feel immediately threatened by the arrival of advanced technology: only 25% of workers say they are concerned about being replaced by these technologies in 2020, while fully 53% say they are not at all concerned. Nor does the level of concern increase significantly when the timeline is moved out: only 29% say they are concerned about losing their jobs to technology in the next five years, while almost half (47%) say they are not at all concerned.
At the same time, workers also express some clearly negative attitudes about technology in the workplace. A clear majority of 55 % disagrees with the assertion that robots are better workers than humans. And an even stronger majority of 57% agrees that “robots and advanced automation are bad for American workers.”
No Need To Hide: ‘Future Proofing’ Your Career
As robotics and automation become more prevalent throughout U.S. businesses, no worries. You don’t have to run and hide, just prepare for the inevitable changes that are coming. Almost 69% of employees in recently automated workplaces report that it has made a positive impact on overall workplace morale. And 65% agree that technology can free up human workers for more interesting work. Still, 44% of those who work in newly automated workplaces also report that technology has taken over a portion of their jobs. This figure is even higher among highly educated workers (49% among those with a post-graduate degree) and those who work in the technology sector (61%).
Opinions are closely divided on the question of whether technology will create more jobs than it displaces: 41% believe this will be true, but 47% disagree. The level of skepticism exceeds a majority among women (52%); workers over the age of 39 (51%); rank-and-file workers (55%); and workers in the manufacturing sector (54%). The strong perception that robots and automation “are bad for American workers” is even stronger among workers with only a high-school education (66%) and workers in the retail sector (68%). Significantly, there is virtually no difference of opinion on this issue between workers at firms that have recently automated (57%) and workers at firms that have not recently automated (59%).
These negative attitudes stand in stark contrast to the positive sense that technology is improving morale and making workers’ jobs easier. This discrepancy suggests that American workers are still coming to grips with the impact of technology on the workplace, and are not yet able to arrive at a clear-cut consensus on the issue. According to Jefferson Flanders, CEO of MindEdge Learning, “Navigating the impact of robotics, automation and AI is a pillar of modern business operations that will take time and experience for business leaders and employees to understand. American workers are continuing to uncover exactly how they feel about robotics and automation in the workplace. But regardless of how they may feel, technology is inexorably transforming the U.S. workforce–and employers and workers need to prepare for it.”
While many workers are still deciding how they feel about automation at work, the large majority (88%) believes that gaining relevant industry skills through continuous learning is a useful strategy for “future-proofing” their careers. The specific skills that are most in demand among American workers include computer programming and web design (29% say this is one of their top three most valuable skills); cybersecurity (28%); creative thinking (26%); complex problem-solving (26%); and critical thinking (25%).