This is special-guest blog post by Nia Christian, one of Digital FastForward’s intelligent automation experts. Nia leads robotic automation projects for different clients in banking, healthcare, and higher education.

Should we have empathy for robots? Do they even deserve it? While that may be a bigger philosophical question, the general idea of robots deserving empathy is one we should consider. One morning while at the grocery store checkout, I entered my store loyalty card number. Instead of changing the regular price to the sales price, the machine just froze like a deer in headlights. I was immediately reassured when the worker stationed in the self-checkout area came over to help me with an override for the self-checkout machine, but even her credentials couldn’t resolve the issue. We both figured this was a one-off, so I moved over to the next available self-checkout register while she continued to diagnose that self-checkout register. What happened next was a domino effect. As I began to gather my items, I could hear two other customers at their self-checkout machines, which were also alerting the store worker that they too needed help.

Developers have a running, unspoken joke that the second you step away from a software project is the second it starts to malfunction, especially when support is not around. In some situations, we may even think of software machines or automated hardware machines as disobedient, needy children, the type of children that behave themselves when their parents are around but go wild the minute their parents leave the room. I observed the chain of events while I was at the store; there was one store worker assigned to monitor all 9 registers in the self-checkout area. My machine malfunctioned and alerted the user visibly and quite audibly that it needed help. I’ve always been a little embarrassed when these machines malfunction, especially when there’s a long line behind me. The process of the store worker coming over to address the issue kind of makes you feel like the one student in the classroom who got a question wrong that everyone else got right. The only difference with this store situation was that I wasn’t alone. Within minutes, two more machines were calling for help. Now she had three machines flashing lights and demanding a diagnosis all at once. Is this not reminiscent of a parent with children under 5 all wanting to capture their parent’s attention?

Each self-checkout machine is only able to resume its work after the worker has tended to it, diagnosed its issue, and checked to make sure that it is alright to continue working. Even if the store worker isn’t able to diagnose the machine’s issue in the heat of the moment and assigns the machine to go to sleep, it still will require some attention once it is back online.

How are these automation and robot software issues resolved and what opportunities does resolving them present for you as an employee? Some machines operate independently. But many machines still require a high level of attention and monitoring from humans. So, rather than seeing a complete role displaced by robots, we are seeing new roles for humans that will demand more skills and new skills from them in order to maintain efficiency and productivity.

My visit to the store could have easily been short if a few things happened differently. If the grocery store had a few more people assigned to monitor the self-checkout area, maybe they would have noticed before 3 machines malfunctioned. Most importantly, if the store had a proper training program on how to repair these machines, perhaps this would have resulted in less downtime for the self-checkout machines and shorter lines. Shorter lines means happier customers.

When I finally left the store I thought about machines, and people’s fear of being replaced by them. Then I thought, machines won’t replace humans. They will actually require more from them in the form of new skills and more responsibility. Machines create demand not only for the people who build them, but also for the people required to maintain them. As technology inevitably improves each year, there’s an opportunity to learn how to leverage these improvements. This will require constant re-skilling as reported by the World Economic Forum. A re-skilling program to train store employees to diagnose simple robot issues, or even an intro to programming course, may have better served the store worker assigned to monitor the self-checkout machines. Programming courses at a high level offer great problem-solving and troubleshooting techniques that can be applied at many different levels.