Replacing the human “touch”

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:

Migros Subito thief - Page 2 - English Forum Switzerland
Self-service scanner at Migros supermarket

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.

What Is RPA, and How Will It Affect Your Workforce : Sitel Group

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.

Human staff will always be needed, Amazon insists – BBC News


  1. Scott Siegler · ·

    I resonated so much with the opening to your post. I studied German using Rosetta Stone for two years leading up to a vacation I took through Switzerland, Germany, and Austria. I felt so confident going into it but it was so humbling when I’d be struggling to keep up with even basic exchanges. I would’ve definitely appreciated those self service scanners. My hope is that the introduction of automation into manual labor doesn’t mean the end of jobs, but rather a shift in responsibilities for them.

  2. abigailholler1 · ·

    Your sister’s role in the pharmaceutical industry reminded me of the article we read for class this week, which discussed a use case of AI at GNS Healthcare in Cambridge. The article described how data and software took on a more targeted approach to selecting which clinical trials were most likely to lead to fruitful research. It’s easy to look at the automation through AI and agree that some jobs will in fact be eliminated. As a counterargument, can you imagine a world where a pharmaceutical company’s R&D budgets actually increase because of the improved clinical results they’ve gained from the adoption automation/AI? I’m hopeful that some companies use savings from automation to grow research and expertise (and thus jobs) in new areas. Maybe this is wishful thinking though, so I guess I have a lot of unanswered questions, too!

  3. Interesting post. You pose a very powerful point in that jobs will have to evolve with the use of technology. It is interesting to think that a lot of manual labor jobs will become obsolete, I appreciated the real life example of your sister and how her job is evolving. It will be interesting to see if this transformation further divides blue collar workers from white collar workers.

  4. therealerindee · ·

    I’d love to tag in with your last paragraph and Samuel’s post above. The divide between blue collar and white collar workers is going to become even wider as blue collar jobs are automated. Perhaps there should be initiatives taken on by companies to send employees through training to deal with the implementation and maintenance of AI and automation. I think this would not only increase goodwill towards the company, but would also help keep employees and hopefully quell some of the Us vs. the machines fear.

  5. ritellryan · ·

    I agree with Erin on regards to company training employees for jobs becoming obsolete, but it’s a lot easier said than done, as some of the companies that are predominantly blue collar don’t have a lot of other places to go to (unless you train them to become management types). Automation will obviously impact everyone in their role, and I have looked into RPA to be more productive in my job. We have used it to send out collection notices at my company and have moved those people to more value-added tasks, but again there’s big difference between augmenting and replacing a role. However, think about how digital transformation has allowed people to ride-share to make money, so while there is some negative, hopefully there is a positive that will allow things to balance out

    It is funny this topic was brought up because the grocery store near me has replaced 2 checkout lanes for 4 self-service ones, but rarely were both those lanes open at the same time, so now instead of helping 1 person, that worker can be helping 4, so it actually makes them more productive in that sense. That said, as long as I am alive, someone bagging is a role that will never be obsolete.

  6. lisahersh · ·

    Excellent storytelling, Caroline! Piggy backing off Riley, Erin, and Samuel’s comments – I actually shared an article via twitter last week about how technology is changing vocational training and jobs (i.e., Blue collar work) which can be found here: Essentially, right now tech isn’t really replacing a lot of jobs, but just changing the focus and the manner in which they are completed. I feel like a lot of articles talk about the “elimination” of entry-level or blue collar work, however, as discussed in class last week there is often a significant delay between the different adoption curves. What those delays translate into in a work setting is a continuous transitioning period. I work in Human Resources for a company that is a majority blue collar work force (field laborers, truck drivers, equipment operators, material handlers, etc.) and our tagline is literally “people and technology creating a safer, cleaner world.” Because the nature of our work is so highly regulated with lots of government oversight, it’s a very slow process to be allowed to utilize new tech and automation. Mixed with high levels of competition (which is present in the vast majority of blue collar industries), there are limited resources to put towards tech development (even if it results in huge cost savings in the long run). While I 100% agree that a lot of work is going to be made obsolete as AI and automation continue to improve, I think those transitional adoption periods truly results in transforming those jobs rather than outright eliminating them.

  7. Nice post. As often has been said of my class, “I end up leaving with far more questions than I had coming in to it.” My response is typically, “yes, but they are much better questions now!” I don’t think anyone knows how all this digitalization is going to play out for human society, which I think is why it’s important to start having those discussions now.

  8. changliu0601 · ·

    This post reminds me my work experience before.I used to do valuations for private equity products.Later, the company applied software for valuation, and my job became click to operate and monitor the system, manually correct the errors when the system fails.This kind of work makes me think that sooner or later it will be replaced by technology.I am worried that my chances of using my brain and knowledge will become less and less.Then i decided to study MBA.

  9. shaneriley88 · ·

    What a great post + string of comments. It’s amazing to think of the blue collar v white collar rift in the U.S- especially through a lens of education. At a foundational level it’s scary to think of the areas of the country that lack access legitimate internet access or cellular communications. I remember when I was in 8th grade a big to-do in my home state Maine was the issuance of laptops to all 7th grade students. Our then governor (now Senator), Angus King, took a lot of flack for the cost and relevance of giving 7th grade children Apple iBooks .( )

    I think as things evolve and automate formative education must continue to provided the ability to “touch tech. This doesn’t mean that STEM is better than liberal arts or post-secondary education is better than joining a trade. I view it as an opportunity to understand ones trajectory and build professional relevance.

    “‘I think we’re going to demonstrate the power of one-to-one computer access that’s going to transform education…the economic future will belong to the technologically adept.’ Gov. King

    @lisahersh loved your article!

  10. williammooremba · ·

    This post reminded me of my senior project during my undergraduate degree. I was prototyping how to automate a manual inspection process to use an industrial robotics solution. At the time I mostly was focusing on the engineering aspects of it, but I did have a question of ethical considerations. In theory if my project were successful, I was going to be at least automating a task a human would generally do. Now my thought process at the time was that it was a repetitive task, and the people could spend their time doing something else. However, just because I personally would not like to do the task, does not mean long term I was not interfering with the other person’s work. This blog post reminds me of one of the reasons I went to business school. To think about the bigger scope of work changes. Overall great post.

  11. kellywwbcedu · ·

    This is so interesting to me, as I am an avid follower of Elon Musk and he often warns of the slippery slope that AI brings humankind. Instead of checking people out, employees at these supermarkets must check these customers ethics each time they perform a random search, and this can be awkward. I’m sure there is no simple training for this either as it can be unpredictable how a customer might react when confronted on their ethics. It will be important to monitor how these technological advancements effect the mental health of employees as I’m sure these machines are meant to make their lives easier, but they may be doing the exact opposite.

  12. lourdessanfeliu · ·

    Really interesting topic and great post! Your experience in the German super market reminded me of Amazon Go in Seattle. Amazon Go Grocery is a grocery store in which you pick up your items, bags them and then just walk out the door.. with no need to check out! I also wonder how the industry will shift once more automation and digitalization is implemented to manual processes.

  13. Definitely an interesting topic overall. It’s interesting from a lot of different angles, one of which I think is most interesting is that Caroline’s experience was aided and more enjoyable when the human contact was removed. In my experience, I tend to gravitate towards human interaction, but I think you made some excellent points as to how the shopping experience was aided.

  14. AndraeAllen · ·

    I’m very actually very impressed with your sister’s ability to evolve into her role. Moving from Pharmacist to Business Analyst is a giant leap, and it proves that hiring smart, flexible people is key to digital transformation. Even more impressive is her outlook on what her role will entail after ironing out all of the roadblocks in the current processes. Great post and congrats to your sister!

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