I lived for about 6 years in Switzerland. I studied some German, enough not to starve, but I definitely could not hold a conversation in the language. I was relieved when the local supermarket introduced this:
That little self-service scanner meant one thing: I did not have to interact with the cashier anymore, in a language I barely understand. That made my shopping trips easy. I scanned my own products, I “bagged” them as I shopped, I paid at the automatic cashier with my credit card, and off I went. As simple as that.
Well, in 2017, the Canton of Geneva discussed the implementation of the “Penalty Tax”. That meant that for every check-out register the supermarket would hold, a penalty of CHF10,000 (approx. $11,000) would be applied on taxes, in an attempt to protect retail jobs. That of course slowed down the digitalization process – but only in that canton.
What Canton of Geneva failed to notice was that jobs transform as technology makes certain positions obsolete. But this process is not smooth either. A year later, Unia (Swiss largest trade union) released a study on how self-checkouts actually increased both workload and stress on the employees. The self-checkout option was not based on trust only. Every now and then you would be randomly selected for a check and staff needs to monitor and deal with customers that may try to squeeze something in for free. Cashiers are now required to confront these customers, which is not always as easy task.
My sister works for a big Pharmaceutical company in Brazil as a pharmacovigilance specialist. You would think her job consists of analyzing adverse events on medicine that patients take, however, her job evolved into implementing first RPA (Robotic Process Automation), followed by AI (Artificial Intelligence) – even though she has no IT background.
How is a pharmacist implementing these solutions, I asked myself. This blogpost made me call her and finally ask the question: how do you do what you do?
She first laughed at me. But then she quickly answered: “I am an SME (Subject Matter Expert)”. Her job evolved into consulting for the consultants: she explains what is needed, why it is needed and how it should work and the consultants are tasked with developing the solutions.
She supported the implementation of RPA in 2019. They used a software called “Automation Anywhere”. The program acted as a human. It would also have a login and a password for the systems it would act on, just like a human, for traceability. It mimics the exact clickings a human would perform. So the non-valued-added tasks were transferred to this software.
As RPA was successfully deployed, the team is now moving to the next step: implementing AI, which means the software will also learn new activities, being able to determine seriousness of adverse events; if the adverse event has been observed in clinical trials and therefore disclosed on leaflets; if the drug was misused; if there is a causal connection; etc.
I asked my sister: “What will your job be when all of these happen?”. She answered: “Quality Control and Project Management”.
Now, while it is true jobs will evolve, much like my sister’s job, what happens to those that perform manual tasks? What happens to those that can be replaced? Will we see an even larger income inequality?
Tye Brady, Chief Technologist at Amazon Robotics does not believe in a complete replacement of humans by robots. In his words: “You extend human capability. And when you gain productivity, then you have the ability to create new jobs that were unimaginable five years ago.”
While writing this post, I noticed I have more questions than answers. Are we hoping for new jobs to be created in a desperate attempt not to recognize how obsolete we will become? Maybe. We tend to focus digitalization discussions on the efficiencies it brings, on how we can focus on what matters, and the new possibilities to grow businesses using it. But that reduces the impact we see to white collars only. If Tye Brady is right, then we need, in my opinion, to support the cultural change to adapt the workforce and develop skills that will support automation. So humans and robots can complement each other.