LONDON — Countless think papers on “the future of work” tell us one thing: the machines are coming.
Advances in robotics and artificial intelligence are set to radically reshape the jobs market globally over the coming decades, as technology makes more and more jobs obsolete.
The World Economic Forum (WEF), for example, estimates that 5 million jobs will be destroyed by automation by 2020 while Oxford University and Citi say that 35% of jobs in the UK and 47% of jobs in the US are at risk of automation.
The front-line of automation is usually thought to be call centres and factory workers. Manual labour and monotinous tasks are done better, faster, and cheaper than by machines.
But it is not just car factories and the like who rely on robots. Even fintech businesses are using them.
Payment business Adyen has six robots at its Amsterdam headquarters testing its payment terminals. CCO Roelant Prins told Business Insider: “They’re testing 24/7, testing any possible card, any possible combination, any possible scenario, because of course we want to make sure these payment terminals are covered for any possible interaction.”
Adyen is a tech-focused payments business that lets companies manage all their various payments streams on one platform, which covers different geographies and both online and offline sales. It is hugely popular with digital businesses and counts Uber, Airbnb, Netflix, Spotify, and Facebook as key customers.
The company is increasingly moving into the physical terminal market — card machines and tills. This is where the robots come in.
Prins says: “It swipes the card, it taps the card, it pushes a lot of buttons. There’s all these different payment types out there now and there are all these different combinations.”
Adyen began using the robotic arms around 18 months ago, starting with one but scaling up after discovering how effective they are.
“Human factors are quite challenging because they’re going to get tired, they’re going to make mistakes,” Prins says. “Robots will never make mistakes. It’s very useful for us.”
Does this mean fewer jobs for humans? Adyen recently announced it made $US1.4 million (£1.1 million) in revenue per employee last year — a statistic that speaks as much to its relatively small staff as it does to its ability to generate cash.
Prins says: “We do it with less people than competitors because it’s much more efficient and it’s also necessity because the market is getting much more competitive.
“At the same time, what we create is the ability for a lot of our customers to expand worldwide, we make it easier. They can reach more and more people in many more markets which in that sense creates more economy you could say.”
In Prins’ telling, the justification for the robots is part automation arms race — it has to automate or face obsoletion — and part the trickle down economy — by lowering its prices through automated efficiencies, Adyen frees up cash at its clients, letting them expand and create more jobs.
“Yes we’re automating but the way we look at retail is a lot of retailers are in challenging times right now,” Prins says. “They all have a mission to, on the one side combat the likes of Amazon and the e-commerce volumes. On the other side, they have these stores and they are thinking how can we transform these stores.
“Ultimately, payments plays a key role. We handle payments in store and online and everything is centralised. If you think about returning something in-store to something you bought online, that’s what we enable. We’re opening up the opportunity for retailers in our own humble way, enabling them to do their strategies that allow them to continue to exists.”
The jury is still out on whether automation creates more jobs, at least in the short-term.
Citi’s global equity product head Robert Garlick noted in an extensive report last year that “unlike innovation in the past, the benefits of technological change are not being widely shared — real median wages have fallen behind growth in productivity and inequality has increased.”
Bank of England governor Mark Carney made a similar point in a speech earlier this year, saying: “Alongside its great benefits, every technological revolution mercilessly destroys jobs and livelihoods — and therefore identities — well before the new ones emerge.”
For Adyen, this kind of automation is reaping huge rewards. It announced in February that transaction volumes grew by 80% last year to hit $US90 billion (£72.8 billion) and said this week that revenue jumped from $US365 million (£292.8 million) in 2015 to $US727 million (£583 million) in 2016.
Adyen was valued at $US2.3 billion (£1.8 billion) in 2015 in an investment round led by Iconiq Capital, a Silicon Valley fund backed by an incredible lineup of billionaires including Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter cofounder Jack Dorsey.
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