How to welcome your new robot overlords

By Noah Solomon, Research Manager –

What’s more terrifying than the impending robot apocalypse?

The images of skeletal, metallic warriors might be long past being a realistic vision of the future, but a new omen has reared its head in the form of automation. The idea that skilled and unskilled workers alike, from factory floors to recruiting firms, could be replaced by unthinking, unfeeling and unpaid automated laborers has breathed new life into fears of a robopocalypse, in which the humans who survive must scrounge from the scraps left by the business owners who own the robots. But is this a reasonable scenario to fear? It remains to be seen, of course. The best sci-fi authors seem to have delivered various, contradictory arguments on the matter but the jury remains out.

Robotics Process Automation, or RPA, is in vogue. Many companies seek to use it to streamline their redundant processes by handing them over to bots – software designed to take these processes out of the hands of human employees to make them faster and more efficient. Utilities are seeking to use RPA to automate their back-office billing processes, many of which can be monotonous for humans. (Southern California Edison won Chartwell’s Gold Award in Billing and Payment in 2018 for its work on RPA.)

The fear stoked here is that when these robots show up to make work more efficient, they might well eliminate the humans who have been doing these jobs, monotonous as they might be.

Fortunately, these fears have not been realized. Many companies who have already implemented RPA haven’t laid off workers whose more monotonous tasks are now in the cold hands of machines, nor do they have plans to, it seems.

Instead, companies intend to move these workers into “…more knowledge-based, creative and strategic assignments, relieving their human employees from boring and repetitive work.” With this strategy, everyone wins – the workers whose tasks get taken over are able to move on to more interesting work and the company gains operational efficiency and a happier, more fulfilled workforce.

As utilities move further into implementing RPA, it seems likely they will follow the lead of other companies in ensuring the employees whose jobs are at stake in the automation of these tasks do not have to fear RPA eliminating them entirely. Instead, utilities can find new ways for the affected employees to plug in and work at the utility in other capacities. Will this mean a potential increase in cost allocated to retraining some employees to perform these tasks? Certainly, but this brings with it a new benefit: the increased happiness and satisfaction of the workforce. Doing this right might just make everyone a winner.

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