Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto: The rise of robots poses many challenges

By Phil Rist, EVP, Strategic Initiatives, and Chrissy Wissinger, Communications Director, Prosper Insights & Analytics

Robots are on the move—advancing from simple physical tasks to intellectual areas of business including medical diagnostics and data and financial analysis. Gartner has predicted that one in three jobs will be taken by robots or software automation by the year 2025. Some such strides are good for the betterment of society, such as Ebola-zapping robots that are helping to combat one of the worst health crises we have seen; but the rise of robots also poses challenges for HR managers.

Humans using automation to put human jobs at risk is nothing new. It's what the industrial revolution did to American workers in the early 1800's. Today almost all of the work done by farmers in the 19th century has been replaced by machines. Although the revolution brought about new types of job opportunities, it also caused stress and anxiety for those unsure how they were going to make a living. Fast forward a few centuries and robots/automation bring a similar unease to the American workforce.

Americans' concerns that their jobs are going to be "botsourced" are growing. In cooperation with mobile research technology firm Pollfish, we asked over 3,700 Americans if they are worried about losing their jobs to robots or automation. Year-over-year, there has been a 53 percent increase in the number of Americans concerned. While 18 to 34-year-olds remain among those most concerned, their level has decreased 7 percent. Concerns among those 55 and older have shot up 140 percent.

Physical, laborious tasks have been widely automated for years. But the reality of botsourcing isn't just for low price labor. In May of 2013, McKinsey released their Ten IT-enabled business trends for the decade ahead report. "Automating knowledge work" came in at No. 5. According to McKinsey, "… advances in data analytics, low-cost computer power, machine learning and interfaces that 'understand' humans are moving the automation frontier rapidly toward the world's more than 200 million knowledge workers."

We live in the age of advancing artificial intelligence—smart automation is emerging to analyze big data, write articles and even assist in surgical procedures. Programmatic ad buying is eliminating the need for media buyers, while insight platforms that serve up advanced analytics are reducing data analyst positions. Higher wage earners may find themselves in competition with machines to keep their jobs. David Willetts, the Minister of State for Universities and Science, suggests that robots will take over middle-class professions such as accountants and teachers. But we aren't there yet. Willetts believes this would lead to "dramatic changes in the pattern of work," although not to a reduction in the number of jobs as a whole.

HR professionals are frequently asked to champion change for their organization, and automation is not always a change employees can believe in. It becomes personal when an employee perceives a risk of losing their job. An initiative to "free up capital" will likely impact morale, motivation, and team building, to name a few. Given that 53 percent more people are worried about losing their jobs to machines than last year, HR professionals need to be both sensitive and strategic in their plans for automation. 

Staying on top of this issue is important, and one way to do so is to highlight and focus on the application of technology that helps people do their job better. Rather than just going the cheapest route, consider which jobs should be automated, which ones can be enhanced with automation and which ones still need human expertise for decision-making, to be creative or make adaptations when necessary. Similar to the 19th century, advancement in technology will create new and exciting jobs in the 21st century that may not have even been considered yet. Successful companies will employ a blend of humans and robots to increase their bottom line without pulling the passion out of its people.

Phil Rist is EVP, Strategic Initiatives and Chrissy Wissinger is Communications Director at Prosper Insights & Analytics.