workers battle robots for limited jobs

THE PUNCH Newspaper- Ozioma Ubabukoh

Since 2016, Adetayo Oresanya, an employee of a fast-rising manufacturing company with a corporate office located at Opebi in the Ikeja area of Lagos State and a production plant at Ijebu-Ode in neighbouring Ogun State, has lived in fear of losing his job to automated machines and robots.

Oresanya’s fear, which has also affected his self-confidence at work, arises from the fact that the snacks and drinks producing company that he works for recently decided that it would have to adopt new technologies to boost its productivity and keep up with the fierce competition in the fast moving consumer goods market.

“To be honest, these new technologies are making the work more effective and faster, but the painful truth is that the more the company adopts these new technologies, the more it sacks workers.

“If I had attended the university or polytechnic, or even acquired computing skills, I would not have been scared of losing my job because I would be either self-employed or remained very useful to the company,” he says.

The tone of Oresanya’s voice clearly betrays his fear about his uncertain future as he recalls how between November 2016 and December 2017 the company had sacked not less than 100 workers at the Ijebu-Ode factory and replaced them with robot-like machines.

Worried by the management’s sudden preference for artificial intelligent machines, he says, “The machine-to-machine connection is programmed in such a way that it is rare to find any error in the line of production. Most times, these machines clap, jump, gesticulate and respond to production situations as if they are humans.

“For instance, the machines tighten the plastic covers of the soft drinks and seal them up in such a way that you are tempted to think it is done by a super human. Everything is perfect!

“In fact, where we human workers make mistakes, these machines correct them. It is so bad that we have been reduced to mere machine operators, machine supervisors, machine cleaners and machine watchers.”

Like many of his surviving colleagues, he is also scared that a further deployment of automated machines will most likely render him jobless.

He feels that if this happens, his world might just crumble like a pack of cards and the impact on many members of his family, including his wife and children, who depend on him for their upkeep, will be indescribable.

“So far, I have been lucky not to have been sacked before now and some of my senior colleagues say so. But in this era of computerised machines, there is a limit to which my luck can be stretched,” he adds.

Oresanya is not alone in this dilemma. Unfortunately, many other Nigerians working in different sectors of the country’s ailing economy, especially those who are low-skilled, are facing the same challenge. Their stories, which they share with our correspondent, speak of the fear of unemployment, lack of job opportunities, economic hardship and regret of not acquiring higher education that would have saved them the humiliating interference of robots.

Also, an employee of a multinational company based in Lagos, Saheed Iyanda, says, “We need help! Help, before these moving machines render us jobless!”

Although Iyanda has registered at the Aptech Computer Education for lessons in Java and Oracle solutions, he is worried that his tight daily schedule will not enable him to learn fast.

“I only attend classes on Saturday. But I need to learn these skills as fast as I can, so that I will not wake up tomorrow and discover that my job has been taken by a robot. The problem is that I don’t have enough time. Many workers in my department have been sacked. The management couldn’t keep them because the machines have taken over their jobs,” he says.

Investigation by our correspondent shows that many jobs in Nigeria could be taken over by automation. According to a new study, such a development may be tantamount to throwing a spanner in the country’s works of manufacturing its way into prosperity, just as China did and emerged a super power.

The Citi Bank and the Oxford Martin School, a research and policy arm of the University of Oxford authored the study, which also states that 85 per cent of jobs in Ethiopia, 67 per cent in South Africa, 65 per cent in Nigeria and more than half of the jobs in Angola and Mauritius are at risk of being automated from a pure technological viewpoint, the highest proportion of any continent globally.

The study is part of a continuing series on how rapidly changing technology will affect economies and societies, as we know them.

In a previous study co-authored by some Oxford University lecturers, the growing of cereals and fibre crops were found to be near certainties for a takeover by machines and industrial robots – with agriculture generally having the highest risks in a survey of over 700 jobs.

The authors show that in the absence of export-led manufacturing growth as a path to prosperity, “Nigeria will need to search for new growth models as many low-skill services can now be performed by robots.”

However, a chief executive officer of a commercial bank based in Lagos, on condition of anonymity, says that automation in workplaces is now beyond the mental images of robots on a production line or behind a fast-food counter.

The CEO adds that the most invasive form of automation in the workplace today is actually software, often in the form of Enterprise Resource Planning platforms and Customer Relationship Management systems.

He says, “Software, either in the form of the ERP platforms or CRM systems, is silently leading to massive job losses in the banks and other sectors of the economy than you can imagine.

“I had rather people lose their jobs to robots or automated machines than to some powerful software, because the job losses to robot-like machines are a mere one-tenth of the jobs that are lost to software.”

The dirty little secrets of companies

The Founder, mPedigree, Bright Simons, agrees with the Nigerian bank chief executive, saying that companies have been spending millions in business automation for years at every level of the enterprise in spite of the fact that these efforts frequently fail and the impact on productivity has been unimpressive.

Simon says, “In Africa, as I came to learn during my enterprise software advisory days, there is an epidemic of failure related to current workplace automation tools. A few years ago, I was a consultant to one of the world’s biggest custom software groups. Our strategy in Africa was to target traditional ERP vendors by pointing to the abysmal success rates of deploying the ERP’s and CRM’s platform on the continent.

“When one digs into the source of the failure of most of these programmes, it becomes obvious that the problem is poor user interfaces. Crucially, these programmes have to work by understanding how people communicate with each other.

“Clearly, for such tools to fit into the African enterprise and help spur productivity, much more intelligence is needed to adapt them to their users; in this context, a fascinating link between the Artificial Intelligence and jobs emerges.”

A panacea to productivity challenges

For Accenture Nigeria, investments in the AI, Virtual Reality, robotics and blockchain technology capabilities will help businesses across various sectors and boost their productivity and efficiency through innovations.

The company’s Managing Director, Mr. Niyi Tayo, notes that many consumers and enterprise clients will depend on the AI to select products.

“Early this year, we predicted that in five years, more than half of consumers and enterprise clients would select products and services based on a company’s AI, instead of the company’s traditional brand.

“And in seven years, most interfaces would not have a screen and would be integrated into daily tasks. These two predictions alone strongly suggest that companies must act now on developing their AI Journey,” Tayo says.

He adds, “We want businesses in Nigeria – from banking to manufacturing, health, construction, education, retail, security and other sectors to take advantage of the innovations we have created to improve. We believe as one of the biggest economies in Africa, the time to seize the future is now.”

The Accenture Nigeria managing director dismisses the fear that industrial robots will lead to job losses, saying that the reverse will be the case as people will get trained and retrained.

“There is clear evidence that points towards robotic automation in many cases being a complement for human labour rather than a direct substitute. Human effort becomes more valuable as it is focused on higher-level tasks, creativity, know-how, and thinking,” Tayo says.

In a report by Accenture, titled ‘2017 Technology Vision’, which studied how the AI would affect banks going forward, over 600 of the world’s major bankers were asked about the new technology and how it would change the way banks operate internally and how they could handle their customers externally.

According to the report, three quarters of the bankers surveyed, four out of five to be exact, believe that the AI will become the primary way banks interact with their customers. This is in relation to customer service. These bankers see the AI technologies, such as chatbots, becoming increasingly essential for banks in the not-so-distant future.

Commenting on the issue ‘Fear not, robots will not be stealing Africa’s jobs any time soon’, Simons says that in the early-medium term – say the next 10 to 25 years – the AI is likely to save rather than destroy jobs in many sectors around the world, including Nigeria.

The mPedigree founder agrees that for the AI fear mongers, robots will simply take over end-to-end. “Yet the truth is that we are so far away from being able to build such robots.”

The Information and Communications Technology expert is of the view that there are more alternatives to the possibility of robots quickly replacing all workers.

He says, “For example, we are more likely to see AI-enhanced training tools to bridge the skill gap. Imagine web-training videos that can interact with a learner, adjusting settings to suit their evolving understanding.

“The critical insight here is that ‘specialised AI’ that complements average human performers is accelerating at a much faster pace than ‘general AI’ that can effectively and fully replace an average worker. Hence, the usual suggestion that the AI will replace middle-level workers and leave only the super-talented at the helm refers to a much more distant horizon than the current socio-economic forecasting tools can handle. And frankly, diehard futurists aside, such timescales are not particularly useful for human planning.”

Simons also notes that Africa’s biggest economic challenge today is filling up large sections of its economy with average workers primed to perform average tasks far better than most workers are currently managing to do.

“In South Africa, as many as 31 per cent of employers cannot fill their vacancies – a major component of overall employment,” he says.

Writing in the Africa Report, he adds, “The tools that exist today to train and empower such workers are dumb. This frustrates enterprises and entrepreneurs who are forced to scale down the absorption of labour to meet expansion and innovation requirements.

“With cleverer personnel augmentation and empowerment tools, more workers will fit better into more roles in a multi-tasking fast-paced and rapidly mutating work environment – thereby boosting productivity and lifting overall employment levels on the continent.”

The impact is real

Software developers at Andela Nigeria (an American company that specialises in training software developers) are already feeling the impact of near-AI or pseudo-AI capabilities in several segments of the country’s labour landscape.

During a visit by our correspondent to the company’s office in Yaba, Lagos, these software developers, many of who do not have the experience and exposure of their peers in Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, Egypt, among other nations, are using tools such as Jade to smooth the learning curves for building complex enterprise software architectures. They use Chef to better control and harmonise the infrastructure on which the code runs.

One of the developers at Andela, Kendra, says, “Without these smart tools, the hundreds of developers filling for programming opportunities in and outside the country would not have been privileged to do so.

“The software being built by tech start-ups all over the country and in Africa would not have been built here, and the jobs they have created would not have existed.”

The Communications Lead at Microsoft Nigeria, Mr. Oluwayemi Orimolade, tows the same line of thought in his argument, pointing out that similar signs are now visible across the design and engineering domains, “which are precisely the ones where the skills shortage in the country is most intense and where the unfilled vacancies and unharnessed job opportunities are most concentrated.”


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