Robots – friend or foe?

I still remember my sheer delight in my first job when I was given a shiny new twin floppy drive IBM PC. I was the most junior employee with the most up to date kit, purely because I was the only person who could build and run spreadsheets. In the 90’s and early noughties there was the joy of a new laptop every three or four years. Then things changed with smartphones and tablets suddenly office tech felt pretty old hat. We went from delight to disappointment with our tech at work fairly quickly and now there is a new trend; fear.

I read my the news on my BBC app each morning, here are a few recent headlines:

‘MEPs vote on robots’ legal status – and if a kill switch is required’

‘Could robots be marking your homework?’

‘Robots and drones take over classrooms’

‘Toyota launches ‘baby robot’ for companionship’

Media coverage often leads on how robots or AI will replace people, be it teachers, junior lawyers (researching legal precedents), carers and the like. White collar workers it seems are under threat, en mass. The threat of significant white collar unemployment in developed economies hits a nerve, and some pretty large figures have been bandied about. However as I highlighted in my previous post ‘Will Robots take your job?’ historical evidence from farming and manufacturing shows a new growth of employment over time, after some initial displacement.

Robots -Your Friend or Foe?

Robots -Your Friend or Foe?

Employers and organisations are rushing to embrace robots for process automation and AI for everything from medical research and diagnosis to fraud detection and prevention. And we all know about self driving cars. There’s an interesting choice to be had here; do organisations simply deploy these technologies to reduce operating costs (i.e. replace people) or choose also to enable people to work better and create greater value (and revenues)? Robots marking homework can free create more teaching time and perhaps reduce classroom sizes, expert medical systems and remote robotic hands can mean a skilled surgeon in the US could remotely operate on a child in Africa. In offices freedom from repetitive manual process creates more time for interesting, value adding work and servicing customers.

I believe if we embrace and deploy this technology intelligently as our next set of tools, we can enhance the world of work, make jobs both more enjoyable and productive and make the most of the skills we humans possess that cannot yet be modeled, programmed and scaled. Let’s take an example from automobiles; in most modern car plants car bodies are painted by robots. Once the robot is trained by a master painter, they are far more productive and consistent than humans. But later in life if that car is in an accident panel repair requires the touch, feel and eye of a skilled repairer. As each repair is different this is not something a robot could do.

As individuals we have a choice either to fear or embrace this next wave of technology. If we choose to embrace it, we may need to double down on our unique skills and how we create value, perhaps increase our skills or retrain. Become the master repairer and painter so to speak. Or the person who knows how a process, function, or business really works, and what can be automated and what cannot. Let’s not forget all organisations ultimately deal with people as their clients, customers or end users. Successful organisations tend to have very strong, positive cultures, they are the sum of the behaviours of their employees. Technology may often be the science of an organisation but the art of the possible remains very much in our hands.

No one enjoys a bad process automated or poorly executed technology. From IVR phone menus, to voice control in cars to self self checkouts in supermarkets there are numerous examples. It is people who make the difference, for better or worse.

Perhaps we will soon be living in a world where we have Google cars, AI enabled doctors, robot teachers assistants and carers for the elderly and synths on the check out at Tesco. Whether this is better for ourselves, our organisations and society is down to us and the human choices we make.

Takeaways:

  1. Robotic technology and AI can displace, support or enhance people
  2. The new narrative plays to our fears
  3. There are many potential benefits of this technology, some known, many more yet to be imagined
  4. We have the choice how to use technology
  5. We have the choice of how we respond to technology
  6. Robots and AI will change the way we live and work over the next decade
  7. We can shape this future based on whether we choose to embrace or fear the change
  8. Don’t ignore the change, get involved

 

The article was originally published on LinkedIn and is re-posted here by permission.

Stewart Reeves

Stewart has 30 years of experience leading strategic transformations as both a client and in consulting. Prior to joining Virtusa, he was a Partner in IBM Consulting where he led CRM and Analytics practices for 14 years in the UK, Europe and China. Whilst he has worked across a number of industries his prime domain is financial services. In Virtusa he leads BFS Consulting in Europe. His role is to work with our client teams to sell and deliver strategic transformations for our clients and combining the necessary teams, capabilities and solutions accordingly. Current ‘hot topics’ are Operational Transformation, Digital Payments and how to build and run Innovation Centres.

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