In a certain sense it was unfortunate that the strike the SA Society of Bank Officials (Sasbo) called to protest against the growing trend to replace human workers with technology did not go ahead as planned at the end of September.
Nothing came of the plan to strike at a later date after Business Unity SA (Busa) got a court interdict to stop the strike.
A general strike by a large proportion of bank employees, of all the banks country-wide, would have made a very interesting case study, to see how banks would have worked for a few days if humans left the task up to basements full of computers and cellphone apps. It would have been an experiment that no individual bank could replicate.
The trigger for the strike was the announcements by several banks that they would close more branches and reduce staff by the thousands, while their results showed that more and more people are using electronic banking either through automated teller machines, the internet or mobile apps. Most people only enter a physical bank if something goes wrong with their bank cards or online access to their bank accounts.
Bank employees called the strike to get banks to explain their strategy with regards to the so-called fourth industrial revolution (4IR) and get a commitment from banks to safeguard jobs.
In reality, machines have been ‘stealing’ banking jobs from humans for decades. It started in the banking industry in all earnest when Standard Bank installed its first Autobank ATM in April 1981. There are currently over 30 000 ATMs in SA, which work mostly 24 hours every day, probably replacing 150 000 tellers.
But the stage was set for this trend centuries before. Machines have been reducing the workload for humans since the start of the original Industrial Revolution in the late 1700s. Tractors, bulldozers and increasingly sophisticated construction and agricultural machinery have replaced thousands of labourers and their picks and shovels.
Programmable robots build better cars, and do it faster and cheaper than teams of artisans. Better technology makes service intervals longer and on-board intelligence and a laptop cuts service times and ultimately, the number of technicians needed in the industry.
The list of examples of machines taking over jobs is endless. Laser-cut technology produces better boats, kitchen cupboards and musical instruments than the best craftsman can make by hand.
Last year, a Dutch company, MX3D, used a 3D printer to print a steel pedestrian bridge of 12 metres, to span a canal in Amsterdam.
Machines, especially artificial intelligence, are increasingly replacing more than only menial and physical labour. Not long ago, an airliner needed four crew members in the cockpit – a pilot, co-pilot, flight engineer and a navigational and communications officer. Smarter equipment has cut it to two pilots. Some high-performance smaller aeroplanes competing with business jets, like the Pilatus PC-12, only need one pilot.
Personally, my house doctor is webmd.com. He/she/it explains symptoms better than most doctors and costs nothing. A second opinion is a Google search away, also for free. A human doctor is down the road if physical maintenance on one of my parts is necessary.
Furthermore, the effect of programme trading on financial markets has been blamed for corrections in stock markets since the 1980s and asset managers are moving towards using more artificial intelligence to advise clients, dubbed robo-advisors.
It is noticeable that local retailers, such as Builders Warehouse, Pick n Pay and Woolworths, are actively advertising their online services. It is even more apparent that the online ‘salesman’ knows the products better and can give better advice than the human on the shop floor.
Specialised online publisher Computer Hope recently compiled a long lists of jobs that are being taken over by computers and robots, or that very soon will be. It includes:
- Assembly-line and factory workers
- Bank tellers and clerks
- Phone operators and receptionists
- Cashiers in shops
- Warehouse-moving and -packing workers
- Analysts, researchers and journalists
- Stock traders
- Postal workers
- Doctors, anaesthetists and surgeons
- Soldiers and guards
- Travel agents
- Chefs and cooks
- Typists and secretaries
- Garden and house workers
- Bus-, truck-, train- and taxi drivers
“A robot can work 24/7 with little to no pay or benefits and is often faster than a human with fewer errors,” according to Computer Hope. “Robots can also be helpful to employees as they can easily do jobs that are repetitive, monotonous or dangerous and leave the interesting jobs to the humans.”
Most homes in SA are already packed with labour-saving machines that make full-time employees the exception rather than the rule. Anything from a myriad of gardening tools to automatic washing machines, dishwashers and small roving vacuum cleaners have reduced the demand for a domestic worker to a few days a week, instead of for a full 40-hour week.
Airports, hotels and fast-food restaurants have been installing self-service terminals over the last few years. Airlines offer passengers the option to book seats online, while passengers flying from most international airports in Europe would apply the various stickers to their luggage themselves and see it disappear down a chute without the help of an airline employee, hopefully to the right aeroplane.
However, there are still glitches.
Sometimes robots have been found to be lacking the right social graces and communication abilities to do certain jobs. The Japanese Henn na Hotel in Nagasaki made the headlines in 2015 for employing mostly robots instead of people.
It made headline again in 2018 when it ‘fired’ most of the robots for not doing their work properly.
The Henn na Hotel (meaning weird hotel) originally employed 243 robots to check in guests, clean rooms, carry luggage and answer queries. However, guests soon started to complain, while the robots’ human counterparts complained that the robots increased their workload.
Some robots were, in fact, replaced by guests’ own ‘personal assistant’ – the very clever smartphones that do a lot of work for all of us on a daily basis.
Technology has surreptitiously taken over many little jobs and functions in our lives, changing the 4IR to a rapid evolution.