Hardware

Robots: About to make your job much more boring

As bots and software automate more roles previously carried out by humans there is a danger we won't like what's left.

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Kiva bots stand at the ready in one of Amazon's fulfilment centres.
Image: CNET / CBS Interactive

Robots and artificial intelligence are expected to make work less of a chore - taking over repetitive tasks and freeing people to be more creative.

But as growing numbers of bots join the workforce over the next decade there's a risk the drudgery of the nine to five may actually increase for some workers.

Take the retail giant Amazon, which this weekend let journalists see how its knee-high Kiva bots are transforming operations inside one of its US warehouses.

The 3,000 Kiva robots at the fulfilment centre pick up shelves of products from the warehouse floor and bring them to a human employee, who picks items and packs them for shipping.

For Amazon it's undoubtedly necessary to be more efficient. The retailer needs to fulfil a ballooning numbers of orders without impacting its service and Kiva has helped it drive the time it takes to box an item down to 15 minutes.

But what about the humans in this chain? Staff no longer walk the warehouse selecting items from shelves, but instead stand picking items from an unending parade of shelves that are delivered to them by the bots.

Amazon employee Rejinaldo Rosales told CNET he likes the bots, but was less effusive about his new role, only saying: "We don't socialise as much, but it's more efficient.".

Sounds great for Amazon. But it also appears that a job that had at least some variety and human contact has been reduced to standing in one place and repeating the same tasks.

The truth may be that for some tasks, such as packaging goods in a warehouse, machines can perform the lion's share of the work more effectively than a human.

What's left for people are tasks that software has traditionally found tricky - such as recognising what real-world objects look like - as demonstrated by Rosales' new role in Amazon's warehouse.

"They [the Kiva bots] arrive at Rosales' station in a line. A computer screen above a set of conveyor belts tells him which item to grab and where on the shelf it's located. He grabs the items and throws them in a yellow bin on a conveyer belt to his right. Once he's done, he hits a button and the conveyor takes the bin away to be packaged and shipped," CNET writes.

This erosion of human responsibilities isn't only happening in retail warehousing. Advances in AI and automation are squeezing people out of roles, like that of call centre operator or shop assistant. One of the first applications for IBM Watson will help shop staff answer customer queries. The app will underpin an in-store Q&A service for a telecoms retailer in the UK, with assistants in the retailer's stores able to defer customer questions to the Watson-based system. With automated tills slowly replacing manned ones, the role of the shop assistant also looks it may become rather pinched.

Perhaps it's inevitable that as jobs near full automation, the role of the person diminishes. Some researchers forecast swathes of manual roles will disappear, with the most pessimistic predicting that close to half the jobs that exist in the US today will have been automated in 20 years time. Of course, it's worth remembering that many new roles will also be created in that time. For it's part, Amazon said it hasn't eliminated any jobs since the introduction of Kiva.

It's also almost certainly true that advances in AI will remove the drudgery and busy work from many jobs - no solicitor would miss poring over reams of legal documents or journalist would pine for hours of transcribing. And advances in scientific fields such as genetics would not be possible without the immense speed and precision with which computers and automated machinery operate.

But let's not pretend the future is universally bright. In other industries automation could well leave people with slim pickings, where the only remaining openings are tedious and menial.

About Nick Heath

Nick Heath is chief reporter for TechRepublic. He writes about the technology that IT decision makers need to know about, and the latest happenings in the European tech scene.

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