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The robots are coming

Machines are replacing people on farms, food factories and McDonald’s restaurants. But fears that they will make humans redundant are overblown, writes Nick Hughes.

When self-service kiosks began rolling out to McDonald’s outlets in 2015, staff could have been forgiven for fearing the worst. The machines, which looked like giant white smartphones, allowed customers to place their order without interacting with restaurant staff, while screens positioned above the service counter notified them when their food was ready to be collected.

The obvious conclusion was that many employees would soon find themselves surplus to requirements.

Yet, intriguingly, the opposite has happened. Restaurants where the kiosks have already been installed are often employing more people. The technology is attracting more customers through the doors, creating a need for more staff with more varied responsibilities, which include greeting customers and helping them get to grips with the new technology.

Time will tell whether this trend continues but it certainly puts a question mark against the conventional narrative that the adoption of technology in the workplace spells bad news for humans.

Technology alarmists who predict mass unemployment have been given plenty of ammunition in recent years, not only by a series of books making doomsday predictions but also by headline grabbing statistics put out by authoritative bodies. The World Economic Forum, for instance, declared in a 2016 report that developments in areas such as genetics, artificial intelligence, robotics, nanotechnology, 3D printing and biotechnology were creating a fourth industrial revolution that could lead to a net loss of more than 5.1m jobs caused by disruptive labour market changes over the period 2015–2020.

In this scenario, food is one of the sectors most at risk of a mass jobs purge. The FT recently reported that a new generation of farm robots is being readied to plug a labour shortage on Britain’s farms that may soon be exacerbated by Brexit. Although robots that can pick soft fruit with the same dexterity as a human are 10 to 20 years away, machines are already being employed to carry out planting and weeding. Elsewhere, farmers are increasingly using unmanned drones and driverless GPS-guided tractors to map areas of highest yield, assess the fertility of the soil, or detect and track areas of plant disease thus enabling them to target pesticides more effectively.

Automation is an even more established trend in the food manufacturing sector, where employment has fallen from about 410,000 to a little over 370,000 in the decade since 2006, according to Eurostat. “Visiting some food factories is a futuristic experience with production controlled by a small number of experts operating space-station-like … equipment,” noted a recent Food Research Collaboration report on labour trends in UK food manufacturing.

In the food retail sector, one need only look at Amazon’s new store concept – Amazon Go – to see the direction of travel. A pilot convenience store in Seattle allows shoppers to walk in, pick up their groceries and walk straight back out again. The store uses CCTV footage and sensors to track which items customers have taken off the shelves, linked to a mobile app that shoppers download and scan on arrival. Staff are conspicuous by their absence.

For many commentators, Amazon Go offers proof that humans are being edged out of food sector jobs by their robot counterparts.

But this analysis may be simplistic. Research from the McKinsey Global Institute found that positions will not necessarily be replaced wholesale by machines, but instead up to 45% of activities that people perform in those positions could be automated.

“A focus on occupations is misleading,” the research states. “Very few occupations will be automated in their entirety in the near or medium term. Rather, certain activities are more likely to be automated, requiring entire business processes to be transformed, and jobs performed by people to be redefined, much like the bank teller’s job was redefined with the advent of ATMs.”

This reflects the experience of Ocado – one of the most technologically advanced companies operating anywhere along the food supply chain. The online grocer has its own dedicated technology arm tasked with harnessing the power of artificial intelligence across the entire supply chain. Applications in development include a robot engineer that tells assembly line engineers where the problem lies and provides them with the tools to fix it, and a robot hand that is able to pick and pack groceries without damaging them.

Such physical manifestations of robots are what many of us think of when we hear the term “artificial intelligence” used by scientists, yet everyday applications of AI tend to be more mundane. Ocado recently launched a new customer contact centre which uses advanced AI software to categorise customer emails, ensuring that the most urgent inquiries are given priority. It means employees no longer have to spend hours categorising thousands of emails manually and can spend more time actually dealing with customers and making empathetic decisions such as the Ocado call centre operative who delayed a delivery to allow a customer to go on surprise date with his girlfriend.

“The history of Ocado shows that with our continued investment in automation there’s no drop in the work that’s being done by humans,” says Greg Cempla, the general manager of Ocado Technology. “We will always look for ways of improving customer service by using more and more automation but we will always need humans to do more advanced types of work.”

The foodservice sector, too, is framing technology as an opportunity for employees to do more rewarding work, rather than a threat to their livelihoods. Sodexo’s 2017 Global Workplace Trends report identifies the new generation of robotics as one of ten trends to watch. The report states: “Not only will increased automation allow for the creation and fulfilment of better jobs for people … but it will also save workers from ‘bad’ jobs – those that are boring or, worse, unsafe.”

McDonald’s staff – now free to roam the restaurant floor – are in many ways the embodiment of this observation. The fast-food chain is about a third of the way through the rollout of self-service kiosks and is likely to have introduced them to all outlets within the next two years, according to Dean Ward, the chief technical officer and co-founder of Evoke Creative, which developed and manufactures the McDonald’s kiosks and has created similar bespoke technology for the likes of Debenhams and Travelodge.

Ward believes self-service technology will become increasingly ubiquitous in the foodservice and retail sectors in the years ahead given the compelling business case that sits behind it. “The main benefit is reducing the size of queues as customers are spread between the kiosk and the staffed checkout,” he notes. “People also tend to dwell a little bit longer [at kiosks] and there’s the chance to upsell without the pressure of someone asking you to do that. People actually tend to spend more money.”

McDonald’s has recently taken another technological leap by teaming up with UberEats to launch its first home delivery service. Dubbed McDelivery, the service is being trialled in 22 restaurants across London and 10 in Leeds and Nottingham and is available to customers living within 1.5 miles of a store. It follows a similar initiative by KFC, which is using the Just Eat platform to offer home deliveries from 30 outlets in Greater London.

Deliveries are still carried out by people, but even this norm is subject to disruption by new technology. In May, a Tesco food order was delivered to an address in central London by a robot in less than 60 minutes under the retailer’s new Tesco Now service. After the success of the trial, Tesco plans to move ahead with a wider rollout of robot deliveries, in partnership with tech start-up Starship Technologies.

A future where a robot picks your food, packs it, processes it, sells it and delivers it to your door does not, on the face of it, augur well for humans’ employment in the food chain.

Yet the reality is that we’re a long way from robots being able to replicate everything a human does, as Alex Voica, head of technology communications at Ocado Technology, explains. “Humans are very good at identifying issues and working in environments that can vary quite a lot. They can spot that a machine is broken or there is something wrong with your oranges, or a scanner isn’t working properly, and right now and perhaps for the foreseeable future, machines aren’t as good as humans at identifying those issues.”

We humans can rest assured for now. The robots may be coming, but they’re not ready to take over just yet.