Peter Buell Hirsch
Tech / Innovation
The Robot in the Window Seat

Almost a hundred years ago, Czech writer Karel Čapek introduced the world to robots in his novel “R.U.R.” Since then, the world has traveled back and forth between fear of The Terminator and wry laughter at R2D2. With each new technology breakthrough, futurists and commentators have speculated about a world in which human workers would become marginalized and put out to pasture. Regardless of what phase we are actually in today, there has never been more hysteria about the “end of work” than there has been in the past two years. The McKinsey Institute has weighed in heavily, claiming that within the next five years 60 per cent of jobs could become 30 per cent automated (McKinsey Global Institute, 2016). Not to be outdone, Deloitte teamed with MIT to declare that 70 per cent of CEOs believe they will need a new or different talent base to compete in the future (Schwartz et al., 2017). The year’s calendar is bulging with conferences and summits about the “Future of Work” and “The People Imperative.”

The heavy breathing revolves around the convergence of different developments creating a kind of existential shock: artificial intelligence, perhaps more appropriately called machine learning; robotics; autonomous vehicles; and, suspended in the Cloud (of course), the Internet of Things. Each of these developments has been viewed from both apocalyptic and pragmatic perspectives, but one does not have to subscribe to Kurzweil’s Singularity, thankfully still a few decades off (2045), the point at which humans and machines fuse, to see evidence of a significant evolution taking place in the way technology is changing the world of work (Kurzweil, 2005).

This is not the first time that fundamental changes in work through technology innovation have created shock waves. During the Great Depression, John Maynard Keynes speculated that technological progress might make a 15-hour workweek possible (Keynes, 1930/1963). During the administration of President Lyndon Johnson, a concerned group of scientists and social activists sent him an open letter decrying the “cybernetic revolution” that would create a “separate nation of the poor, the unskilled, the jobless” (Perucci and Pilisuk, 1968). Up to now, these concerns have seemed to be largely unwarranted, but 2017 has proven so far to be the great year of robot paranoia. A Google search of the terms robot/jobs/future together yields 32 million hits (Google), and the titles of magazine articles on the topic provide rich fodder for both concern and skepticism: “Elon Musk: Robots will take your jobs; Government will have to pay universal living wage” (Clifford, 2016) and “Bet you didn’t see this coming; ten jobs that will be replaced by robots” (Grothaus, 2017), are the types of headlines that are an increasing feature of news coverage about robotics.

As with much technology change, the impact is likely to be slower than anticipated but more profound when it finally arrives. This is why it is critical that companies begin to learn today what a more automated workplace will mean for the humans and the human-led organizational units still on the job. The “war for talent” is still with us and the phrase attributed to business guru Peter Drucker – “culture eats strategy for breakfast” – suggests that this is an area of critical concern (McCracken, 2006). We need to examine now how human-to-human interactions and human-to-machine interactions will change in the years to come, and develop approaches that strengthen “human” employee engagement once these humans are surrounded by robots and other automation tools. When robots are doing 50 per cent or more of a single human job, each human could theoretically be doing a piece of several jobs not just all of one. How does this change the world of work, teamwork and workplace community dynamics? In this new world, what is the camaraderie of the water cooler? Companies that want to continue to benefit from a motivated human workforce need to think through what these forces of change mean for their employees.

Arguably, McKinsey kicked off the latest workplace automation discussion with a paper in July of 2016 that examined 2,000 workplace activities in 800 occupations to determine the technical feasibility of automating them. The firm concluded that “currently demonstrated technologies could automate 45 per cent of the activities people are paid to perform and that about 60 per cent of all occupations could see 30 per cent or more of their constituent activities automated”. In some occupations, such as finance and accounting, robotic process automation is predicted to be able to reduce the number of people required in the function by 75 per cent.

In an earlier study in 2013, researchers from Oxford University predicted that machines might be able to do half of all jobs in the USA within the next two decades (Frey and Osborne, 2013). This ambitious forecast might even have misstated the reality of the impact of automation. While they cited psychology as one of the least “computerizable” professions, there is in fact considerable evidence that robot therapists can outperform humans on some measures. A robot computer therapist named Ellie developed at the

University of Southern California consists of three devices – a video camera to observe facial expressions, a movement sensor to track gestures and fidgeting and a microphone to capture every vocal inflection (Robinson, 2015). Ellie takes 1,800 measurements a second and can “recognize” 60 different vocal and visual features. Test subjects reported that they were much more comfortable sharing personal and intimate details with this avatar than they would have been with a human counselor.

Data on the experience of humans working beside robots in office environments are still sparse, but there are some reports about the ways in which they are learning to live with their new automated colleagues. The Financial Times recently described a scene inside the back office operations of a bank in Bangalore in which employees have taken to giving their robot colleagues soft female names such as Lakshmi, and at an insurance processing company in London one of the bots is named “Poppy” (Waters and Kwong, 2017). A managing director at the Indian bank describes workers talking to the robots as if they were human. “Sometimes”, he says, “people are so fond of them they give them the window seat”.

This is excerpted from the full article. Click on the link to the journal below to view the article.

“The robot in the window seat” appeared in The Journal of Business Strategy, Vol. 38 Issue: 4, pp.47-51, and is reprinted with permission from Emerald Publishing Group Ltd.

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