17 February 2020
The ability to understand how robots operate and learn how to work effectively with these robots will be increasingly valuable.  Photo: Reuters
The ability to understand how robots operate and learn how to work effectively with these robots will be increasingly valuable. Photo: Reuters

How we should learn to work with robots

Re-training and learning new skills are important in adapting to the age of automation, but Hongkongers should also learn to work alongside robots

We’ve known for some time that automation increases efficiency, results in fewer mistakes, leads to a more optimized workforce, and helps Hong Kong achieve its smart-city goals. Despite this, there is still some resistance among those whose jobs could be impacted by the rise of automation.

There are certainly some sectors that are being disrupted by automation technology. For example, as South China Morning Post reported in January, automated valuation models are making it easier to instantly calculate valuations by analyzing values of comparable properties, historical price movements, and details such as location and size of property, thereby disrupting the function of Hong Kong’s existing property surveyors.

In order to prepare for the forthcoming automation wave, governments, companies and individuals are focusing on retraining – learning new skills that will enable them to adapt to changing needs.

A global McKinsey survey highlighted that executives increasingly see investing in retraining and upskilling existing workers as an urgent business priority. Nearly two-thirds said addressing workforce skills gaps as the result of automation was a top-ten priority.

This is a good thing. As automation makes some roles – particularly the “boring”, repetitive, rules-based tasks – redundant, so will a number of new jobs and opportunities open up. Employees should be trained to be able to grab these new roles. The most recent Future of Jobs Report from the World Economic Forum makes clear that automation, in fact, will create millions of safer, more meaningful, and more valuable new jobs.

One skill that is not being addressed, though, is the ability to work alongside robots. There is an ongoing perception that automation replaces entire jobs, leaving humans to find an entirely new role. In the case of software robots – such as Robotic Process Automation (RPA) – this is unlikely to be the case, especially in Hong Kong. Rather, RPA will automate some tasks, leaving the human employee to do more value-added work.

For example, in the professional services space, RPA turns accountants from bean counters into more valuable consultants. Much of the copy-paste work that accountants find themselves doing can now be automated. So, if an employee spends 20 percent of the week doing repetitive work, that employee will now have an extra 20 percent free to add value for the company and client.

The ability to be able to understand how these robots operate, identify the processes that they can and cannot automate, and work effectively alongside these robots will be increasingly valuable. Those who are able to do this will see their productivity – and careers – shoot up. Those who cannot will struggle.

So, while robots and automation aren’t set to take over every Hongkonger’s job, the business body will have to take leadership on this issue: workers need to be better equipped to co-exist with automated systems as part of everyday working life.

The challenge for Hong Kong is a psychological one – overcoming human resistance to this inevitable shift and trusting the technology. We’ve already seen it play out in financial services, where robo-advisors and algorithmic trading are now commonplace.

While progress is being made, and some good government policy has been put in place, we must question whether real strategies are being implemented quickly enough, and whether business is leading or simply waiting for policymakers to chart a course.

As the government focuses on supporting enterprises, preserving employment, and stabilizing the economy, now is the time to face these challenges head-on.

This can be difficult as humans are often resistant to change. IT departments can push back against changing existing processes and retraining staff, even though technologies such as RPA won’t change the underlying IT system itself.

But for Hong Kong to fully reap the economic and social benefits of automation, its human workers and businesses must stop worrying, let go of their resistance around handing over trust and control to machines, and learn to love the robot.

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General Manager for Greater China at UiPath