The risk and tedium of building cars on assembly lines are gone. Much of that work has been offloaded on industrial robots; none of which take lunch breaks, clock out after eight-hour shifts or go on strike. Yet! Replacement jobs have become more complex, engaging workers skilled in robotic production system design, install, operation, maintenance. But there are fewer of them.

Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that from 1980 to 1990 U.S. jobs in auto manufacturing declined and that workforce shrank from 1.1 Million to 85,000. The trend followed into the 21st century. In Michigan (the industry hub) auto workers lost two-thirds of their employment prospects between 1990 and 2010—as overall job numbers went from 102,000 to 34,900.

Bots: Beyond Factory Work

The move to automated systems and robots began with repetitive blue-collar work but has invaded the white-collar world; not to replace clerical and management staff, tech evangelists said, but to free up humans to do creative work machines cannot. At least, not at present. This latest advance in techno-wizardry is known as Robotic Process Automation.

Writing for Process Excellence Network, Daniel Senter said RPA tools serve non-tech office users well in that, rather than being coded or scripted, processes “are built by showing the robots what to do” in ways which mimic human interface with end-user systems. In effect, software robots have automated routine, repetitive tasks like:

  • Filling out forms
  • Tracking expenses
  • Opening & reading email
  • Compiling & updating stats
  • Mining social sites (aka scraping)

From billing to scanning attachments, what has made these jobs ripe for automation are simple, step-by-step parameters. Using a list of “If/Then” rules, bots have quickly and accurately saved businesses time and money—plus, some say, benefited their flesh-and-blood counterparts.

In a 2017 report for management consulting firm McKinsey & Co., James Manyika, et al., concluded that workers of the future will spend more time on tasks machines are less capable of (i.e., managing people, applying expertise, communicating) and less on those machines exceed human performance in (i.e., predictable motion, data collection and processing).

Job requirements will shift, too, to include social-emotional skills and advanced cognitive capabilities such as logical reasoning and creativity.

Automation Bots: Then & Now

Automated business processing has been around—but RPA differs. Rather than a programmer coding each step, bots master tasks by tracking human operator mouse clicks and keyboarding inputs in real time. Chatbots have combined artificial intelligence with RPA by utilizing machine learning algorithms which ferret out If/Then rules.

Natural language processing (NLP) tools then collect and collate data from many databases to formulate replies in plain English, having automated a function that once required human interface. Ambiguous problems demanding deep knowledge have elicited a hybrid approach: The bot handles the basics, the human contributes creative thinking.

The good news about RPA, then, is that automating routine tasks has not entirely replaced human workers and may increase satisfaction. Reedy Creek Fire Dept., assigned to Disney World, has RPA in place. A 911 operator takes a call and inputs related data. A bot then takes over dispatch, alerting fire and medical crews of pertinent details. It also stores an incident log. Rather than displaced, first responders are assisted to apply judgment and respond quickly.

Uses for RPA have grown as old-line automation players like IBM compete with new names in this tech space, as cited by Michael Baxter for “Information Age” and others: Blue Prism Ltd., Kofax Inc., UiPath, Another Monday, etc.

Is This Robo-News?

Even jobs not thought to be RPA candidates are. In 2017, Lucia Moses at Digiday reported that “The Washington Post,” Associated Press and others were using bots to filter data (i.e., earnings reports, box scores) and write formulaic articles. Its first year, Moses said, the Post “produced around 850 articles using Heliograf”—which it calls in-house automated storytelling technology.

Others have labeled it “robo reporting.” In talking with the AP, Moses learned that AI frees up about 20 percent of its writers’ time so they can dig into factors affecting companies’ earnings or add play-by-play/color commentary to sports stories. Still, not all are as sanguine or upbeat.

Interviewed by “60 Minutes” in 2019, computer scientist and venture capitalist Kai-Fu Lee predicted that 40 percent of the world’s blue- and white-collar jobs could be replaced by robots. For the “L.A. Times,” Samantha Masunaga noted a 2017 study predicting that 38 percent of U.S. jobs could be automated by 2030, citing PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Job shortages were not the topic of these predictions. Shifts in the nature of work were, pointing to changes which may exceed disruptions caused by the Industrial Revolution of the late 19th and early 20th centuries—let alone the rise of industrial automation over the last 30 years.

Chase that Digital Unicorn!

Like what you just read? Follow these select source links:

Baxter, Michael. “RPA: The Key Players and What’s Unique About Them” (Feb. 19, 2019).

Carr, David F. “Robotic Process Automation (RPA) Careers: 4 Hot Job Titles” (Feb. 11, 2020).

Manyika, James, et al. “Jobs Lost, Jobs Gained: What the Future of Work Will Mean for Jobs, Skills and Wages” (Nov. 2017).

Moses, Lucia. “The Washington Post’s Robot Reporter Has Published 850 Articles in the Past Year” (Sept. 14, 2017).

Senter, Daniel. “The Difference Between Robotic Process Automation and Traditional Automation” (March 8, 2016).