Friday 18 January 2019 9:11 am

Don’t hand control to the machines just yet

Bad news: the robots are destroying jobs.

The good news, however, is that the jobs they are destroying are their own.

This week, a hotel in Japan was forced to lay off its 243 robots, after they ended up creating more work for their human colleagues. The Siri-like virtual assistants couldn’t answer the guests’ questions, the robo-receptionists couldn’t photocopy passports, and the automated luggage carriers kept getting stuck.

This will come as a relief, but probably also a disappointment, given the recent chaos we’ve seen in Westminster. No matter how keenly you may wish for robots to replace our current crop of leaders, the technology just isn’t there yet. The Maybot is, for now, a dance move rather than an alternative Prime Minister.

This week also brought news that a new “robo-assisted” factory in Somerset for Clarks shoes is at risk of closure. Targets are reportedly not being met, despite the added boost of futuristic technology.

So much for the age of automation.

Of course, these two examples do not reflect global trends as a whole. Artificial intelligence is moving at a phenomenal pace, and has the potential to revolutionise industries from healthcare to finance, retail to law.

Machine learning is a game-changer, with algorithms constantly spotting patterns and getting better, from using photos posted on social media to improve facial recognition software, to figuring out which adverts will have the greatest impact.

But these stories have one thing in common: they show the danger taking our eye off the robotic ball. The fact is that these technologies have vast potential to improve the world, whether that’s by freeing workers of boring repetitive tasks, increasing productivity leading to cheaper goods, or offering personalised services and medical treatments.

But the key is that humans have to remain in control. And right now, there is a sense that the desire for progress at all costs is trumping the equally important need to pause and take stock of the consequences.

We cannot just hand the steering wheel over to our AI underlings and expect the world to function without glitches. Replacing your workers with robots won’t automatically save your business.

We shouldn’t fear the next era of technological change, but nor can we afford to sleepwalk into it.

 

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