Robots will help us embrace humanity, not lose it

Published by rudy Date posted on February 16, 2018


We’re on the cusp of a fourth industrial revolution. First came the steam trains, followed by electricity and after that, information technology—each transforming our working practices and automating jobs previously performed by humans.

These days of course, it is robotics, artificial intelligence and machine learning driving the change.

Thanks to the emergence of big data and increased processing power, our advanced machines are not only able to perform a range of routine physical work activities, but they are increasingly capable of accomplishing tasks requiring cognitive abilities.

It is widely accepted that AI is now better at diagnosing certain conditions than doctors and nurses and tasks such as language translation are increasingly taken care of with machine learning.

No one can really say how this will play out in society and the debate is often heated. Last July, the topic even sparked a row between two of the world’s most powerful men, Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

Musk believes we would be wary of AI and regulate it accordingly, Zuckerberg on the other hand is optimistic and believes creating a negative narrative around AI is “irresponsible.”

While the debate rages on, there’s no denying that AI, and the resulting automation, will change our working practices and render certain roles obsolete. The latest report from PwC suggests that automation is set to affect UK jobs in three waves, with the biggest change expected in the late 2020s to mid 2030s, with up to 30 percent of UK jobs potentially impacted by automation by the early 2030s.

A robotic arm prepares to install the cockpit section of a Daimler AG Mercedes-Benz S-Class sedans at the Mercedes-Benz plant on January 24, 2018 in Sindelfingen, Germany.

A lot of the negative press around automation comes from the perceived loss of jobs. But maybe the view that it is us or them is short sighted. In fact, it is more likely to be us and them. The role of humans will simply change, not disappear.

With automation creating a different type of worker and workplace, our job now is to identify what the jobs of the future will look like. And we already have a pretty good idea. While AI is better than us at tackling mathematical, data-led tasks, we humans still have the edge when it comes to creativity, empathy and emotional intelligence.

Take the example of Pepper the Japanese robot, made my SoftBank robotics. According to its makers, Pepper can recognise facial expressions and react accordingly. But while Pepper might be able to read anger verses happiness, emotions are complex and certain moods are not easily given away by a set of universal clues. Personal experience and an acute understanding of the human experience are essential for accurate cognitive empathy.

Skills such as these, which enable us to connect with others, responding with compassion and understanding, are already critical to business performance. Legendary American businessman Mark McCormack once said: “ All things being equal, people will do business with a friend; all things being unequal, people will still do business with a friend.” This still rings true.

Efficiency and accuracy are important too, of course, but we can’t forget the role warmth and humanity play in building lasting connections with customers. A recent study by Accenture found that while 88 per cent of customers use digital channels at some point in their shopping journey, 73 per cent seek out humans for advice and the same percentage again when it comes to solving service issues.

Automation should not diminish the traits of humanity, but encourage us to embrace them and value them even more. The top 30 fastest-growing occupations for the next 10 years, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, are strong examples of humans looking after humans—nurses, therapists and healthcare workers.

Embracing the latest technology in the workplace frees people up to pursue other, more rewarding tasks. If automation enables us, for example, to concentrate on building customer-centric businesses, we’ll all benefit. There’s an argument to say that rather than engineering humans out of the equation, artificial intelligence will enable us to reach our full potential—performing better. This is known as intelligence augmentation—IA rather than AI.

In its latest report, PwC predicted that new technologies, such as AI, will boost productivity, income and wealth and that this will balance out the job losses. Additional wealth will be spent—creating an increased demand for human-focused services. As Lisanne Bainbridge pointed out in her 1983 paper, Ironies of Automation, the process of automation actually creates more jobs than it destroys. This was echoed by a Gartner study late last year, which found that around two million entirely new job roles are expected to exist by 2025 thanks to wide-spread adoption of AI in the workplace.

Perhaps we should stop focusing on the number of jobs at risk and starting thinking about the ones we can create. Workplaces will become environments that reward ideas and innovative thinking. A world where entrepreneurial mindsets and creativity make all of the difference. Let’s see where it takes us.

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