Robotic workers might sound like science fiction, but they’re increasingly becoming science fact.
Automation has already been blamed for taking jobs away from humans. And as technology such as autonomous vehicles and cashier-free convenience stores continues to improve, those fears are only going to get worse.
Throwing humanoid robots into the mix could take those fears to a whole new level. And there are already some signs that robots are doing the jobs humans used to do.
Still, the results aren’t always negative.
When you enter HSBC’s flagship branch in Manhattan, Pepper will be waiting at the door. Pepper, a humanoid robot made by SoftBank Robotics, answers customers’ questions, ranging from where to find the closest ATM to how to exchange foreign currency. In order to help customers feel comfortable talking to a robot, Pepper mimics human activities, like posing for selfies or telling jokes.
Since Pepper’s unveiling a few months ago, the bank has received glowing feedback, SoftBank says. The company has seen evidence of customer growth and ways the robot is easing the burden on its human colleagues.
“Consumers are the most satisfied when they’re entertained during their wait in line, not just if their wait time is short,” said Steve Carlin, chief strategy officer at Softbank Robotics.
HSBC’s head of innovation, Jeremy Balkin, said HSBC’s data show that almost 10 percent of Pepper’s answers to inquiries were “you don’t have to wait in line for that,” meaning Pepper is likely saving customers time.
In addition, Balkin said ATM usage has grown 6.2 percent, an uptick he attributes to Pepper’s presence on the floor.
“Seventy-three percent of customers walking into the flagship asked about tasks that were binary or generic, such as, ‘Where is the ATM?’ or ‘Where is the nearest subway from here?’ and Pepper could easily answer that question, so the flagship became more effective, driving business growth,” said Pablo Sanchez, CEO of retail banking at HSBC.
But Pepper isn’t replacing jobs at HSBC. The bank said Pepper will give the company the opportunity to hire more specialized workers. Because Pepper is answering “generic and binary” questions, the robot frees up time for traditional bankers, increasing daily productivity.
It’s not just in banks, either. Robots have the potential to take jobs in dangerous industries as well. For example, Disney recently developed a robotic stuntman that can perform stunts that can be risky for humans. Eventually, Disney could use the technology so human stunt actors won’t be put in harm’s way.
On the other hand, robots like Pepper and Disney’s stunt robot could eliminate the need for some human jobs, said professor Lionel Robert, an associate professor of information at the University of Michigan School of Information.
“We lose sight of the fact that there was someone doing that job,” Robert said. “And you don’t think it’s value added, but for a lot of Americans that was their job and that is what they do, so the people who are most vulnerable to job loss are those who are not involved in the conversation and those who can’t find another job.”
Others say there can be positive results from an economy composed of humans and robots. Ella Atkins, a professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan, sees an economy where people find healthier jobs instead of the ones that robots will eventually do.
For example, Atkins said truck drivers are often incentivized to put as much time on the road as possible, which can lead to an unhealthy lifestyle.
“Put a robot in the place of a truck driver, and instead those people can pursue jobs that can allow them to lead healthier lives,” Atkins said.
When it comes to customer service jobs, robots still need to become wiser, not smarter, Robert said.
“Especially in high-end retail, it is human-to-human interaction that matters, because the job of a good salesman is to calm people down, and that is not something technology is good at yet,” Robert said.
In other words, we’re still a long way from a fully self-aware robot that can have human-like conversations with people, like you see in the movies.
It is unclear what the overarching economic effects of robots will be as robots become smarter and more capable of interpersonal communication with consumers. Atkins says there will be “a slow process of attrition,” as we will see the jobs of “social workers and flight attendants or any job that requires human-to-human interaction evolve over time.”
“We are in control of what robots can do, so we don’t have to put specific sectors out of work,” Atkins said.