At the beginning of April, I discussed the dawning of a cobot workforce: an alliance between machines, like AI and physical robots, and their human counterparts. Because our industry has latched onto the idea of “ecosystems,” it only makes sense that we embrace cobots. Why? Well, different organisms working together for the benefit of an entire system speaks to the nature of symbiotic relationships -- you know, the kind that power highly efficient ecosystems. In this case, those organisms happen to be organic and inorganic intelligence. We’ve touted the advantages of machines in countless articles, but worries about a hostile robot takeover persist. Maybe the best way to dispel the myth of this digital coup is to look at how people (even the detractors) rely on this technology today, without realizing it.
How About Collaboration Instead of Consternation?
Cobots, a shorthand term for collaborative robots, are machines designed to work alongside their human colleagues, assisting them with tasks and freeing them to pursue people-powered duties. They can be complex, life-sized mechanisms that aid human partners, or they can be simple tools like chatbots -- the kind recruiting professionals either love or hate. Those in the fan column understand how chatbots alleviate the burden of time-consuming tasks like ranking skills, matching qualifications to profiles, and performing simple conversations for screening. Recruiters may then focus on their core and step in to handle nuanced interactions and assessments.
The resistance just think cobots will eventually steal their jobs or complicate their efforts by ruining the candidate experience. The rationale there involves the idea that an overly artificial dialog will turn candidates off. Of course, research from chatbot maker XOR demonstrates the opposite. In analyzing data from over 300,000 candidate interactions, XOR found that chatbots scored 93% to 99% satisfaction ratings. So there’s that.
Despite the tremendous boons we reap from automated technologies, many people can’t escape the pervasive fear of being displaced by some nebulous notion of “sentient” machines. The thing is, they’re using these devices every day.
Are Machines Really That Terrible?
A Pew Research Center report explored the issue in depth, concluding that “Americans express more worry than enthusiasm about coming developments in automation -- from driverless vehicles to a world in which machines perform many jobs currently done by humans.”
Close to 60 percent of the respondents said they would refuse to ride in driverless cars or receive care from a robot. And nearly 80 percent were opposed to applying for jobs where algorithms were selecting candidates instead of human recruiters.
“But if being ‘human’ means making thoughtful decisions and having strong interpersonal skills, as survey respondents indicated, how ‘human’ are humans?” asked The Atlantic’s Lolade Fadulu in a related piece. “It turns out that the inclination to exalt human qualities might be misguided -- and that robots might actually be preferable in certain jobs that count on those qualities.”
Let’s explore the apparent aversion to autonomous vehicles. People opposed to robotic cars will probably cite the Uber accident that occurred in March. True, a driverless vehicle crashed and killed its passenger. But 37,000 deaths resulted from human error. We’re not talking about DUIs, checking the phone, or fiddling with the radio. We’re talking about outright poor judgment. Despite reductions in deadly traffic accidents caused by distractions or fatigue, federal data indicate that fatalities due to bad decision-making increased.
What about the growing presence of robots in the health field? Are these machines worse at caring for humans than humans? Hard to tell. In 2012, the American Psychological Association determined that 10 percent of the nation’s elderly had been abused or neglected by their human caregivers. That’s four million seniors. To date, robots have yet to turn on their patients or berate them or starve them or inflict bodily harm.
And if machines are taking their cues from the communication skills of humans, what are they really learning? Critical studies from the Foundation for Responsible Robotics have repeatedly warned that artificial intelligence platforms are displaying growing tendencies toward racist and misogynistic behaviors. The problem isn’t digital, however. A stunning lack of diversity in the tech space has created an environment that facilitates biased context, which informs the AI.
As Elon Musk quipped of the Sophia robot, “Just feed it ‘The Godfather’ movies as input. What’s the worst that could happen?”
Time for a Little Myth Busting
Just as in the 70’s cult classic “When a Stranger Calls,” a lot of the perceived threat is a call that’s probably “coming from inside the house.” People have long fretted about the role of technology in the workforce. But short-term disruptions have historically given way to longer-term gains. The telegraph replaced the Pony Express. But it paved the way for a flourishing economy by spurring job creation. Operators, land surveyors, builders, electricians, and others were hired to construct the new infrastructure.
How about this? We have automated weather systems, but there’s no shortage of meteorologists needed to program the machines, analyze the data, and study the impacts. Consider this career outlook report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS):
Employment of atmospheric scientists, including meteorologists, is projected to grow 12 percent from 2016 to 2026, faster than the average for all occupations.
New types of computer models have vastly improved the accuracy of forecasts and allowed atmospheric scientists to tailor forecasts to specific purposes. This should maintain, and perhaps increase, the need for atmospheric scientists working in private industry as businesses demand more specialized weather information.
Your favorite weather person probably isn’t at risk of losing his or her position because Google Assistant can give the forecast when you ask.
A quick glance at any major job board backs up the claim. Postings for meteorologist are pretty popular. Who’s hiring? The military, airlines, electric companies, road crews, farms, educational institutions, research organizations, television studios, radio stations, and more. The National Severe Storms Laboratory has a wealth of information on vocational prospects for folks interested in weather.
The energy market provides another example. When President Trump rescinded the moratorium on coal, he implied that this would protect human jobs from being jeopardized by alternative energy technologies. That fear resonated. But the coal industry itself relies heavily on machines to automate processes, according to Robert Godby, an energy economist at the University of Wyoming. And mining companies are cutting jobs.
Renewables, on the other hand, are outpacing traditional power suppliers in job creation. “Jobs in the solar industry grew 12 times as fast as overall job creation in the US economy,” noted a report by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). The country’s 209,000 solar industry jobs in 2015 outnumbered those in oil and gas extraction -- 187,200 -- and coal mining -- 67,929. The renewable sector in Europe alone could produce 6.1 million new jobs by 2050, according to Sustainlabour.
More importantly, gas and oil skills transfer. Sophie Bennett, policy officer for RenewableUK, explained that many of the technical and managerial needs of the low-carbon energy sector mirror those in traditional energy and power industries.
Reality Check: You’re Already Entrusting Robots with Human Chores
It often appears that everything is being automated, digitized, or mechanized in some way. People don’t, Pew’s report asserted, trust “technological decision-making.” Really? Sure, people complain. They worry. They warn of dire consequences. And many of them engage in this behavior while asking Siri to order them food. Or setting their Gmail to auto-respond to messages from friends. Or withdrawing cash from an ATM. Or having the virtual assistants on their phones schedule appointments for them.
Digital advances, in truth, have ushered in some incredible breakthroughs that promote the welfare and salubrity of humankind. Microchip implants can trigger the release of hormones in the body. Exoskeletons help the disabled walk. Robotic limbs can now interact with the nervous system. Doctors treating autism are using VR to help patients develop social skills, recognize cues, and respond appropriately. Exponential technologies such as desalination systems and 3D printing could end global hunger and a shortage of potable water.
You may not realize it, but 90 percent of your flight time on a plane is handled by computer. On average, pilots manually control the vessel for three to six minutes. The primary reason is safety. Aviation remains one of the safest modes of travel. When accidents do transpire, 75-percent are caused by human error. However, the airlines and the government have no intention of eliminating pilots. If something goes afoul with the machine, a human is there to assume command. And although manufacturers like Boeing are developing automated craft, they have continued to champion the idea of having a trained pilot on the ground who can take over remotely in an emergency.
And if you don’t think AI is evolving to a profoundly human-friendly iteration, you must check out Google’s demonstration of its Duplex technology, which the company introduced in May. “The technology is directed towards completing specific tasks, such as scheduling certain types of appointments,” Google wrote on its blog. “For such tasks, the system makes the conversational experience as natural as possible, allowing people to speak normally, like they would to another person, without having to adapt to a machine.”
Listen to the interactions on the site. One is a conversation for scheduling a hair appointment. It’s amazingly natural. But the second conversation, in which Duplex books a reservations at a restaurant, is flat-out astounding.
It may seem eerie at first, but the point is not that robots will displace humans. Do you really look forward to calling up a salon, sitting on hold, and then going through the motions of placing an appointment? Probably not. You’d rather be focusing on work or your home life. The robot isn’t styling your hair or eating your food for you. But it is giving you back time to do the things that matter most.
We Decide, Robots Abide
I’m not advocating for a robot emancipation or saying we shouldn’t be cautious. We do need to enforce the Laws of Robotics. We do need to ensure that we are programming Ai responsibly, which is why Elon Musk co-founded OpenAI, “a non-profit research company working to build safe artificial intelligence and ensure that AI’s benefits are as widely and evenly distributed as possible.” And it’s important to note that Elon Musk is driving this. He is often criticized as a fear-mongering, neo-Luddite who’s convinced that AI is evil. He’s not.
Musk absolutely understands the benefits of this digital age. But he’s wise enough to know that we must temper our innovations with humanity, grace, accountability, and a mission to better our world -- not exploit it. That, I believe, is the attitude we should all embrace as we grow and prosper together.