Wed Jan 27 2021 Michael McQueen

Last week, The Wall Street Journal published an article marking the 100th anniversary of the word ‘robot’.[1] First coined in a Czech play by Karel Čapek, the term ‘robot’ has gone on to represent everything from dystopian images of machines posing as humans to simple chatbots that converse with people on websites. Interestingly, the term predated the actual object by a couple of decades.

The last hundred years has seen our notion of robots evolve dramatically. In contrast to our dystopian visions, robots have become an integral part of the most mundane parts of our everyday reality. However, with each innovation comes a reawakening of our worst fears and the sense of alarm that perhaps our former visions are closer to reality than ever.

Many of the fears we have about robots taking over could easily be quelled by a quick look at the actual jobs in which they have replaced humans. In most cases, robots have simply taken over the jobs that were designed for them in the first place. Rather than taking the place of the human, they are usually taking the place of the robot in the human.

Jobs which involve repetitive tasks, objective reasoning and predictable outcomes are the primary ones being handed over to our machine counterparts. With their unique capacity for objectivity and their programmable action, robots are ideally suited to these kinds of tasks, which in reality never really suited humans in the first place.

Some of the more vulnerable professions include administrative assistants, legal secretaries, phone support workers, umpires, waiters, accountants and library technicians.[2] The common denominator is the repetitive and predictable tasks which would be more efficiently achieved by robots.

Another fact that should quell our fears is that it has been estimated that two-thirds of the shift away from automatable tasks will be driven by people changing the way they work, not losing their jobs entirely. The upshot of this is that automation will see workers rely more on their brains and personalities than on physical labour. By 2030, machines will likely take over roughly two hours of the repetitive manual tasks we currently do each week. This will allow for a greater focus on the interpersonal, instinct-driven and creative tasks that we humans do best.[3] Research from McKinsey questions the whole notion that AI will eliminate entire professions, suggesting it will simply remove the repetitive and mundane roles within existing jobs.[4]

Perhaps more closely related to our former visions of robots, the humanoid robot is one that takes on the physical shape and characteristics of a human, and often has the capacity to perform some of the more ‘human’ kinds of tasks. Many manifestations of this are already in place across multiple industries throughout the globe.

In my hometown of Sydney, a robotic secretary is already a reality at the Jones Lang LaSalle headquarters. ‘JiLL’, as she is known, is a 57-centimetre-tall humanoid whose job description is to handle a range of front-of-house tasks, including check-in for meetings, providing directions, contacting hosts and reporting building maintenance issues. JiLL also has in-built facial recognition software to enable her to respond differently to team members as opposed to external visitors.[5]

It’s a similar story at the Hilton chain where the company has recently developed a 2-foot-tall robotic concierge to be stationed at the hotel’s reception desk. Named ‘Connie’ for the chain’s founder, Conrad Hilton, this robot will answer questions about the hotel’s services, tell you how to find the gym or advise when the bar will close.[6] Then there’s the Aloft Hotel in Cupertino, California, where room service deliveries are currently provided by ‘Botlr’ – a short, poker-faced servant-on-wheels.[7]

At Manchester Airport in England, an extraordinary device is roaming the floor of the departures lounge floor. Manufactured by Intellibot, this robotic janitor uses laser scanners and ultrasound detectors to navigate around people and obstacles while cleaning the floors. If it encounters a human while it’s doing the rounds, in a polite voice it says ‘Excuse me, I am cleaning’ as it manoeuvres around the person.

The reality is that in most industries, everyone benefits more from a robot’s performance than a human’s, simply because they are designed specifically for efficiency and detail.

Take the medical field for example, a place where precision and predictability are literally a matter of life and death. Japanese researchers recently demonstrated a computer-assisted system capable of identifying and analysing polyps found during a colonoscopy in less than a second. The endoscopic system uses a magnified view of a colorectal polyp to study its features and compare it with the 30,000 endoscopic images used for machine learning. Researchers said they were able to predict the pathology of the polyp with 86 per cent accuracy.[8]

Beyond the world of diagnostics, automation is proving to be a game changer in surgical wards too. A full 40 per cent of robots currently sold worldwide are designed for surgical purposes. Every year the number of robotic surgeries is increasing by 30 per cent and at the time of writing more than 1 million Americans have undergone robotic surgery.[9] When I was working with a key player in the medical device sector recently, they told me that as many as 80 per cent of prostate surgeries today are performed using some form of intervention by a robotic technology.[10]

I would gladly set aside my fears of robots taking over if it meant my diagnoses and surgeries were of these levels of accuracy.

Despite some of the images conjured up by automation and Artificial Intelligence and the fears of jobs and humanity under threat, the reality is that robots have infiltrated society in a way that most of us have benefitted from. 100 years has seen jobs diversify, labour become more effective and opportunity emerge for the human parts of people to be best utilised and expressed. This mark of a century is a birthday to be celebrated.


Michael McQueen is a trends forecaster, business strategist and award-winning conference speaker.

He features regularly as a commentator on TV and radio and is a bestselling author of 8 books. To order Michael's latest book "The Case for Character", click here.

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[1] Mims, C 2021, ‘100 Years of Robots,’ Wall Street Journal, 23 January.

[2] Schwab, K. 2016, The Fourth Industrial Revolution, Penguin, London, pp. 38, 39.

[3] 2017, ‘The Automation Advantage’, AlphaBeta, August.

[4] Kasriel, S. 2017, ‘6 Ways To Make Sure A.I. Creates Jobs For All And Not The Few’, World Economic Forum, 14 August.

[5] Cummins, C. 2016, ‘Robots Are The New Frontline Receptionists’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 6 October.

[6] Kronsberg, M. 2016, ‘Are High-Tech Hotels Alluring – Or Alienating?’, The Wall Street Journal, 28 April.

[7] Aeppel, T. 2015, ‘What Clever Robots Mean For Jobs’, The Wall Street Journal, 24 February.

[8] Molina, B. 2017, ‘New Artificial Intelligence Can Detect Colorectal Cancer In Less Than A Second, Researchers Say’, USA Today, 30 October.

[9] Ross, A. 2016, Industries of the Future, Simon & Schuster, New York, pp. 32, 33.

[10] Cormack, L. 2013, ‘Robotic Prostate Surgery: Keyhole To The Future’, Sydney Morning Herald, 5 November.