Next time you head to a meeting in London, you might be greeted by a robot rather than a human.
Just walk into the Old Street offices of media agency Brainlabs today and Pepper, London's first robot receptionist, will be there at the front door. The company’s new receptionist has been in ‘employment’ since July last year, performing basic reception tasks such as welcoming visitors, updating other staff on arrivals and making tea and coffee.
Pepper’s employer isn’t the only company in London to be automating jobs that were previously done by people: Supermarket self-service tills are the obvious ones, but fast-food chains and cinemas are at it too. Almost a third of London’s jobs have high potential for automation over the next 20 years, according to new analysis. So is Pepper, the robot receptionist, a taste of what is to come? Yes and no.
It's likely that jobs classed as low and medium-skilled, including taxi drivers, shelf stackers and receptionists, will be most impacted by automation over the coming 20 years — meaning millions of workers here in London could be affected.
But automation does not necessarily mean people will be out of work. Yes, Pepper can welcome visitors and prepare tea and coffee, but there are many, many things that the machine can’t do — like quickly responding to challenges, empathising with colleagues, or developing new ideas.
That means that Londoners who are creative, good at problem solving and have solid social skills, will be in a much better position to adapt to the changing world of work. And that requires urgent action — from school age to lifelong learning — to ensure a greater focus on transferable skills like project management and customer service.
Businesses argue that it makes sense to automate routine roles. It helps them become more efficient and enables them to invest in new and more fulfilling roles. As Brainlabs’ CEO Daniel Gilbert says, Pepper has allowed them to divert the salary costs of a receptionist into other, more exciting prospects. The business has become more productive and has grown because of, not in spite of automation.
It’s also worth noting that London’s economy and workers are in a strong position. Over half of London’s workers have a degree. This is especially true for areas where London has specialisms: information and communications, finance and insurance, and creative industries. In London’s economy as a whole, new jobs are also likely be created in these sectors — and a whole range of workers with varying skills will be needed to fill them.
All this suggests that Pepper is just the latest wave of technological innovation to hit London’s workers. Receptionist roles, for example, have been enhanced by technology over the past 20 years — through things like emails, online calendars and electronic invoicing. Perhaps we should be grateful that Pepper is stepping up to take on the more repetitive, dull tasks that fall upon us.
The face of the job market is changing. But booing Pepper and its robot friends won’t prepare London for the future — investing in skills for people will.
Read more in Centre for London’s report, Human Capital: Disruption, opportunity and resilience in London’s workforce, produced in association with EY.