robot friend
PHOTO: Kai Schreiber

As a tech person, I get excited hearing about artificial intelligence (AI), robots and automation. I expect to see articles and videos on these subjects in the publications I subscribe to and the websites I visit. But when I see ads on TV about how AI is going to change our lives, I think to myself: do people really care about the underlying technology? Or do they just want to know that it can make their life easier?

I don't need to know how a car works to know that I want one. Nor do I need to know how a mobile phone works to see the value in having it. In the same way, I’m not convinced consumers need to know — and be afraid of — the AI, robotics and automation that is coming our way.

Related Article: Debunking 4 Popular Myths About Robots

Robots Are Already Part of Our Lives

Truth be told, we are already working alongside these technologies and may not even realize it. Anyone who uses Google’s Gmail is already exposed to it. Gmail uses neural networks to suggest appropriate responses to emails by evaluating the email’s text. The idea is to make you more productive by selecting a response with the option of adding more or sending as is. When arranging a meeting, Gmail suggested “That would be great, thank you!” “Yes, that works for me” and “Nope, that’s fine.”

If you ever visited a website and were offered to chat online in real time to answer any question you might have had, then you have used a chat robot, or chatbot. Many companies are incorporating chatbots for intranets to answer employee questions.

Working alongside machine automation is becoming the new normal. For many knowledge workers, automation is not replacing their jobs, but rather augmenting them. The point is to make people more productive by having them focus on higher value tasks letting the machine do the repetitive tasks. 

For example, my company created bots that do the repetitive testing needed in quality assurance processes related to the user interface on office printers and mobile apps. These robots can do scripted tests 24 hours a day without lunch breaks or vacations. They can also test multiple things at the same time, something humans normally cannot do well. No jobs were lost, in fact more jobs were created to develop further capabilities for the robots. The benefit is my human colleagues can do more interesting work while our robotic colleagues keep humming away, quietly doing their own tasks.

Related Article: Robotic Process Automation and Roombas: What Could Go Wrong?

Automation's Promise and Future

The staffing company ManpowerGroup surveyed 19,000 employers in 44 countries to see what the hiring impact would be as a result of automation. They found that 69% of firms were planning to maintain the size of their workforce while 18% wanted to hire more people. In fact, they found that firms planning to invest in automation would be hiring more people than those not making automation investments.

Research and advisory firm, Gartner, recommends clients reimagine processes to see what can be automated, but cautions not to take things to the extreme. Checks and balances and restrictions should be in place. In other words, a slower approach can be effective. As it turns out, the slow approach is already happening.

It is natural for the naysayers to cry foul over a fear of lost jobs. But history shows the opposite happens. More jobs are created not only in creating robotic systems but also from the cottage industry that can be created around them. Think about the iPhone: soon after its introduction, phone cases and add-on “i” devices, such as speakers entered the market.

Constantly talking about automation, like in those TV ads, can turn consumers off or against it. Most likely these companies do it to show their stockholders how innovative they are. However, if the result is that customers end up having unrealistic expectations and fear, then these companies have actually done more harm than good.

Machines are augmenting our work lives for the better. One day they may be able to do more than structured, repetitive tasks. In the Gmail example, though that specific tool can't currently look at your calendar to check your availability, one day it could. Imagine the efficiency of scheduling meetings with co-workers or with external people by letting the software automation handle it. I’m all for that. Meanwhile, I don’t need a TV ad telling me about the technology behind it.