The Rise of Robots in the Workplace
This week saw the release of ‘The Imitation Game’, a film depicting the life of pioneering computer scientist, Alan Turing. Turing is most famous for his role in cracking Nazi Germany’s Enigma code that helped the Allies win World War II, yet he is also known for his quest to answer the question, ‘can machines think?’, which gave birth to the concept of artificial intelligence – although the term ‘artificial intelligence’ didn’t begin circulating until two years after Turning’s tragic death.
I don’t think it is a coincidence that this week also saw a number of news stories reporting the rise of machine intelligence in the workplace, with particular focus on the sophistication of the intelligence available. The rise itself is news worthy stuff, no doubt, but it is not the main focus: businesses have been taking work from people and giving it to machines since the start of the century, with the resulting job losses always offset by the creation of newer, higher-skilled jobs. Yet now the intelligence of computers is on the creep, widening the range of jobs machines can complete.
Today’s companies want to automate. Amazon is a perfect example of this, with its questionable treatment of workers and ongoing plans to deliver a vast automation program that, as intended, will drastically cut the number of warehouse workers to the barest minimum. It is not just low-skilled work that is feeling the effects of automation: earlier this year a Hong-Kong-based venture capital company appointed an algorithm to its board of directors, proving that even high-profile jobs are at risk!
This is the era of algorithms and big data analytics.
Businesses insist that decisions are based on evidence alone,
with human judgment now shunned and treated sceptically as irrational and emotionally imperfect.
A good proportion of this week’s news focused on the virtual worker – technically known as a ‘learning cognitive agent’ – created by IPSoft. The worker looks like a human, with skin, hair and eye-colour, but ‘lives’ a virtual life on the computer screen. Unlike humans, the agent is an ubermensch of learning and knowledge, with capacity to absorb textbooks whole, speak an impressive 20 languages, understand ideas and learn from mistakes. What makes this agent remarkable its what diiferentiates knowledge from intelligence, in its ability to understand what is meant even when the question is asked in several different ways, incorporating a contextual understanding to the request. This capability to interpret complex problems and develop knowledge certainly represents a risk to the human workforce in its rivalling of human intelligence.
There is a counter argument to the doomsayers prophesising the end of human labour. In taking from workers unskilled tasks, it allows humans to focus on what they are really good at – creativity and using higher intelligence. Machines lag behind humans in such things as intuition, emotional intelligence and lateral thinking. This allows humans to think out of the box, to spot opportunities that a robot could never spot because of an inability to move outside literal thinking. Robots struggle to identify business development opportunities, whereas we have the capacity to think beyond the present situation, to forecast and drive forward. This is why we are the leaders, those who will take businesses forward.
Yet what does this mean for middle income workers: we can’t all be leaders, can we? In many of today’s businesses, there is an emphasis on auditing and automation of responsibilities through processes. Human personality is being drained from business. Data rules. Without data we would struggle to develop a ‘scientific’ understanding of business. All of this points to an increase in automation and, as the conspiracists would argue, an open door ushering in the rise of the robots
If any of the issues raised in this article affect your business, please give us a call to discuss your options. We are happy to advise and find a solution that works for you and your business: 0800 912 7152