People and robots : what work relationships ?

Recently I heard someone stating this during a conversations “We’re going to work more and more with robot.  Anyway, they’re already around”. Then someone replied “No. We’re not going to work with them. They’re going to work, period. The point is to know how humans will earn money without working.”

That raises the question of work relationships between. Such a topic would have looked unrealistic even just a few years ago but is now about a very close future and is even the present for some of us. I’d like to make something clear before going further : “robots” are not only physical machines as we’ve known them for decades thanks to the Sci-Fi literature but also “software robots”, what is closer to artificial intelligence. Both being able, of course, to work jointly in a single appliance.

The best is not the man or the machine but the man knowing how to work with the machine

Knowing who, the man or the machine, was the “best” become more than a prospective debate the day when a robot beat a human at a game involving intelligence and thinking. It was the day when IBM’s Deep Blue defeated Kasparov. Was it the beginning of the supremacy of machines over humans ? Not at all. First because Deep Blue was not “intelligent” in an human way : his superiority came from his ability to compute and test much more scenarios than his human opponent, not from his creativity. Later, students managed to beat super computers by using normal computers, showing that humans working with machines were superior to the best machine.

Hence the idea, still valid in my opinion, that the future is not about humans competing with machines but collaborating with  them. So it’s more appropriate to talk about “working with machines” than replacing humans with machines. Even if machines have improved a lot since Deep Blue. If this topic interests you I suggest the reading of Race Against the Machin and The Second Machine Age.

Robots, more colleagues than rivals

If Deep Blue was nothing but gross power, his heir is able to learn and live in a world where decisions are not binary, yes/no, right/wrong. He can shape hypothesis, find correlations, understand our human language and is closer to the human brain (closer does not mean close…)

His name is Watson and he’s also the “son” of IBM engineers. His feat or arm is to have beaten humans at the Jeopardy TV game where what matters is not raw power but the ability to understand the meaning and the relationship between pieces of information.

With such capabilities one can question the sustainability of the human/machine partnership. As a matter of fact Watson is the first member of a growing trend. I won’t include SIRI in this family because it can perform only a few operations but we should all have a closer look at Facebook M, or VIV, the new project of SIRI’s creators.

But there again, robots are far from being able to get rid of humans. Either Watson, M or VIV are worth nothing without having been educated by humans. Without interactions with humans, trainers, users, they lack fuel.

Considering today’s use cases, most of all for Watson who’s the most advanced and professional of them, robots play more the role of assistants than substitutes. Robots are here to serve the professional.

Robots are killing assistants

It’s true for skilled professionals, but less for routine workers who perform creativity-less tasks. The first than are impacted are assistants, whatever their job. The doctor’s assistant, ppersonal assistants with Watson embedded into IBM Verse. And if you can’t afford Watson, Julie Desk will manage your agenda for less than $50 a month. That’s already a good start. Even in law firms, research assistants should really start worrying about the future of their job.

Broadly speaking, that’s not your degree that will prevent a machine from taking your job after having assisted your. That’s the routine vs creative nature of your work. Hairdressers are less at risk than accountants.

Humans must become must creative and learn to work with robots

I don’t think that robots are going to replace every single job anytime soon but a growing part of them. Only creative jobs in the broad sense are safe. For others, the point is worth our attention. That’s the way jobs are evolving but the real problem is that our education system seems to be paying very little attention to this shift. And it’s not clear either that ou society is ready to handle the transition to a world where incomes are not related to work but activities.

I don’t think this revolution will happen as fast as many predict but that’s not a reason not to care about it.

Meanwhile, human workers will have to develop in two directions. The first is about developing new skills and move along the creativity ladder to be as less as possible exposed. Not obvious for people who have more than 20 years of experience behind them. The second is to learn to team with machines and collaborate with them.

So, let’s come back to the starting question. Will be collaborate with robots ? Will they get rid of us ? It will be a mix between both but one thing is sure : those who won’t be able to work with robots will be out of the business faster than the others.

The short term priority is collaboration between humans and machines, not competition.

Image credit magicinfoto /

Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler

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