30 May

Robots are coming to work with us, not replace us.


Looking back over recent decades, it’s difficult to identify when the prospect of robots taking anything other than a few specialist jobs away from humans became something that the mainstream media decided we should worry about. If concern about millions being put out of work by machines capable of carrying out the same tasks more cheaply and efficiently has ascended the list of 21st century fears with astonishing speed, it’s worth remembering that the process itself goes back a long way.

In the US, for example, in 1960 a quarter of jobs were associated with manufacturing. Sixty years later that figure is less than 10 per cent, largely as a result of gradual adoption of automation.

As its subtitle suggests, ‘Human/Machine: The Future of Our Partnership with Machines’(Kogan Page, £14.99, ISBN 9780749484248) comes as both a reassurance that the fourth industrial revolution hasn’t put us on the brink of a jobs apocalypse, and a warning that the winners of the future will be those who identify how to harness the power of automation and artificial intelligence in a collaborative way.

Reaching that conclusion involved a lot of effort in terms of separating the light from the heat of the debate, in which much of the commentary on the growing role of AI in the workplace is framed as a reductive Terminator-style showdown between humans and robots.

Authors Daniel Newman and Olivier Blanchard, both analysts, spent eight months trawling a vast body of research and opinion – definitely a case of too much information – to identify the half-dozen key studies that they believe stand up to scrutiny.

While their opinion is that AI is still misunderstood and overhyped, they approach the task of forecasting the part it’s likely to play in the future from the perspective that it’s only the latest strand in the story going back millennia that has seen humans creating tools to solve problems that they are not able to solve on their own.

The message across a series of chapters that address five different audiences – business, workers, education, consumers and technology companies – is consistent. It’s a question of task automation as opposed to job automation, recognising that traditional roles can be broken down into elements to which either humans or machines are better suited.

Some of these partnerships will initially evolve outside the workplace. One example suggested here is that, as self-driving cars become available, their ‘owners’ will partner with their vehicles to achieve objectives like commuting to work, running errands during the day and even generating money by providing a ride or delivery service rather than sitting idle in an office car park.

Case studies illustrate how top companies are already adopting symbiotic approaches to integrating machines into their workforces, from gamification in job training to project management teams that incorporate bots and predictive technologies to fix problems in the supply chain before they happen.

If anything stands in the way of a robot revolution it’s the slow pace of infrastructure change and not reluctant humans. Consider how long it’s going to take to update roads, even in countries with good transport networks, to make them accessible to driverless vehicles.

Automation doesn’t inevitably have to be the ‘job Armageddon’ envisaged by some forecasters, Newman and Blanchard say. In fact, it shouldn’t be: “The economic and innovation potential to be derived from human-machine partnerships is far more interesting and full of opportunity than an alternative in which automation is wasted on cutting corners, cutting costs and ignoring the lessons of the last three billion years of human evolution and progress.”

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