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Don’t Stick Your Head in the Sand About Worker Benefits of AI, Robotics, and Automation

by Craig Roth  |  June 25, 2018  |  Comments Off on Don’t Stick Your Head in the Sand About Worker Benefits of AI, Robotics, and Automation

In January of 2017 I introduced a scenario to posit the ways in which gains from automation may be spent to explore a hypothesis that the common knee-jerk reaction – that employees will get fired – only occurs if other options that are better for employees are not viable. Not for altruistic reasons, but because those other options are better for the organizations or demanded by consumers.

The Ollie’s Ostrich Burger scenario has progressed from thought piece to workshop to survey. And now there are real life examples of how management has responded to the scenario. Today’s Wall St. Journal (“Short of Workers, Fast-Food Restaurants Turn to Robots“) provides anecdotes and related employment statistics to illustrate how this type of situation is playing out in U.S. fast food joints.

The results have been consistent with my initial hypothesis, which represents an optimistic view of how employees and society may benefit from AI, robotics, and automation (a triumvirate I abbreviate as AIRA).

In our survey 63% of workers (2,400 in the U.S. and U.K.) thought Ollie’s management would keep the workers versus 37% who would thought they would be fired. Why would the workers be kept? 70% selected “to use the extra time to improve products and services” and 30% to “expand output or number of locations”.

The WSJ article gives several examples of how this happens:

  • Panera can reassign cash register workers to other tasks such as delivering food to customer tables—a new level of service in the quick-serve restaurant industry. McDonald’s Corp. is offering table service now too, thanks to self-order kiosks.
  • Roast beef chain Arby’s installed ovens that roast the beef and then switch to holding mode after reaching optimal cook time. … “It actually allows us to reallocate labor to other areas, such as having more dining room attendants or extra hands at the drive-thru,” said an Arby’s spokesman.
  • Wendy’s … began installing self-cleaning ovens [and] … has hired people as hosts to walk through dining rooms to refill drinks, help customers with kiosks and see if guests need anything more.

In growing industries, growth (in hours open, number of locations, product offerings) can provide more profit potential than cutting staff. And in industries where the buyer has a voice, customers demand a share of the windfall from AIRA – in quality, lower prices, or convenience for example. In the WSJ article Magne Mogstad, a labor economist at the University of Chicago, said “Automation may very well create demand for service with a personal touch.”

I’m not naive enough to think this is the final and only answer. I am saying that the common narrative of AIRA impact on employment (per the article, “The rise of machines in theory should lead restaurants to employ fewer people per establishment.”) overlooks reasoning that results in continued employment. Any analysis that AI, robotics, or automation will result in job loss should first explain why reallocation of resources to growth or quality is precluded.

To do otherwise would be to stick one’s head in the sand about the benefits of AIRA.

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Category: ai  automation  robots  

Craig Roth
Research VP, Tech and Service Providers
7 years at Gartner
28 years IT industry

Craig Roth is a Research Vice President focused on cloud office suites, collaboration tools, content management, and how they are being impacted by digital workplace and digital business trends...Read Full Bio

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