The Revolution of the Workplace

Virtusa xLabs

What impact will Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robots have on this brave new world or work?

A study released in 2017 by PwC argues that changes in the workplace will be more evolution than revolution, arguing that “AI will gradually replace humans in some functions like personal assistants, digital labor, and machine learning”. But although replacement will inevitably happen for certain tasks, it’s the hybrid and symbiotic models of collaborative working that will offer businesses the greatest opportunities for innovation in the mid-term.

While humans and computers have worked together for decades, we have recently seen the scope of computers abilities rapidly expanding. However, people and machines still have different core strengths and companies are investigating how these strengths can coexist in symbiotic relationships, drawing on each party’s specialized skills to drive efficiency.

One question that business will face is how to demarcate the respective remit of humans and bots within collaborative models. On an emotional level, companies need to create an environment where workers feel comfortable working together with bots and AI. One way that this could be achieved is by defining new roles, some being assigned to humans, others to machines, that reinforce a hybrid, collaborative model of working. Interestingly, for industries and cultures with strict organizational hierarchies and the need for absolute compliance, we can envisage a situation in which a VP bot will collaborate with a subordinate human. The power dynamics in this relationship may be somewhat complex.

As human workers increasingly collaborate with robots, labor laws will need to evolve and new regulatory and compliance issues will emerge. These may be enforced by an HRR (Human Robot Relations) Director, and, as we point out in our RegTech article, compliance tasks are ideal for bots. Let’s hope that we understand the consequences of algorithm biases, to assure that justice prevails and our bot HRR won’t take against its fallible, fleshy colleagues.

But the redefinition of roles does not automatically lead to a dystopian descent into robot rule. We typically keep an open mind to change and have nimbly adapted to many new disruptive digital technologies in recent times. Cloud computing, cognitive tech and other digital disruptors have already fundamentally changed the way that we work.

For example, the financial services sector is already used to engaging a “no-collar” workforce, who can deal with reams of documents containing oceans of unstructured text. Here bots can apply Natural Language Processing (NLP) to generate insight in moments, eclipsing the speed and accuracy of any human operator. The insight then informs human staff who are uniquely able to use this, to deliver more effective services to colleagues and clients. The model reflects a hybrid working relationship that only exists when the two parts play their mutually beneficial roles.

Example 1.
Amazon & Kiva

Amazon acquired Kiva, a robotics company in 2012. Kiva now employs more than 45,000 robots, but is still recruiting and employing people. Amazon began rolling out Kiva robots in 2014, primarily in Amazon’s warehouses where human and robot labor coexists. This hybrid workspace has been analyzed and optimized by Amazon, which continually refines and optimizes the parameters of the working relationship between humans and robots.

Example 2.
Google pair 

In an attempt to explore the interplay between humans and AI, Google invested $400 million in Artificial Intelligence (AI) start-up DeepMind and founded a joint venture with MIT academics called the People + AI Research Initiative (PAIR). PAIR’s research addresses key questions for three stakeholder groups:

Engineers and researchers: “How might we make it easier for engineers to build and understand machine learning systems?”
Domain experts: “How can AI aid and augment professionals in their work?”
Everyday users: “How might we ensure machine learning is inclusive, so everyone can benefit from breakthroughs in AI?”.

Example 3.
Robotic dentists

In China, (where experimentation and regulation follow different rules), a robotic dentist has completed its first independent human dental implant surgery. The robot was developed by a team of programmers who worked with a dentist to determine the drill movements, angles, and depth needed to move into the correct position to carry out the operation. They tested these movements, collected data and successfully completed the operation.