The benefits of using robots in the workplace are abundantly clear. Companies with a robot workforce would be able to operate 24/7 without paying staff, would have an attendance rate of 100 per cent, and would have access to pre-programmed employees who would never make mistakes – and all for a one-off payment. No more trips to the dentists, duvet days, emotional breakdowns, bus problems or “food poisoning”. Where do I sign?
As the boss of a company of humans, and having done a degree in artificial intelligence, I am aware of the potential huge perks that come with robot staff and intelligent systems, but also of the potential limits to what they could do for a company.
Though the technology for some of these kinds of artificial workers is already in place – Japan has just launched the first robot hotel complete with lifelike check-in staff who can interact with guests and understand four languages – we are not necessarily ready for it.
New research carried out by Expert Market shows that 70 per cent of managers would consider using a robot in their office, citing their reliability, speed and lack of sick days as key advantages.
The readiness with which the respondents accepted the concept of working alongside robots just highlights how normalised the idea of artificial intelligence has become. Over the years, elements of “humanised technology” have crept into our environment with talking gadgets like Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Echo now commonplace, and it seems many consider robots in the office as a logical next step.
It is perhaps surprising that respondents were so keen to accept robot colleagues, given the widespread coverage earlier this month of the worker from a Volkswagen factory who was killed by a robot working on the company’s production line. Inadequate safety functions rather than an uprising, presumably, but episodes like that do call to mind fictional representations of artificial intelligence where the robots get tired of being the monkey rather than the organ grinder such as in I, Robot.
The good news for sceptics is that there still are limits to what these robots can accomplish. Respondents to Expert Market’s survey picked out IT, office management and finance as jobs that would suit robots, but suggested creative roles like designer or responsible roles like chief executive were not suitable (phew).
Also, while answering the phone, admin and even emailing were deemed appropriate activities for their synthetic colleagues, most drew the line at giving them major responsibility like attending important meetings or taking over their own work.
The key issues seem to be the lack of creativity and emotional attachment robots have to their work, with these factors voted as the biggest draw backs to having robot employees. It will reduce the scope for office romance, too, although if you’ve been tuned into Channel 4’s Humans you might think otherwise.
In the future, we will likely see jobs being split so that robots do the easy parts and human do the harder cerebral parts of the role. This happens across many sectors now including the translation industry, where text is automatically translated by machine translation then checked and edited by human experts so the end copy reads well.
Luckily for us, it seems that while robots might be made to look human, sound like a human and even perform some of the roles of a human, the limit to their ascension comes with their lack of actual humanity.
It’s perhaps inevitable that we will see robots in the workplace in the next few years – they will be manning reception desks, or handling customer complaints, but all the evidence suggests human employees will still be valued for the emotions, creativity and interaction with colleagues.
And that stuff that can’t be programmed… yet.