Ready. Set. Robots! By Sally Higgins, QUT supervised by Professor Rowena Barrett.

Ready. Set. Robots! By Sally Higgins, QUT supervised by Professor Rowena Barrett.

Over the summer period, QUT Business School offers scholarships to students to engage in the Vacation Research Experience Scheme (VRES). Sally is studying Human Resource Management in her Bachelor of Business degree. The project she undertook under my supervision over the 2018–19 summer, was an examination of human and robot interactions at work. This is her essay….

I am about to make a pivotal life decision, one that could change the course of my life forever. And the subtlest (yet most significant) influencer in making this momentous decision, is technology. Take it from me, a millennial undergraduate entering the highly competitive job market at a time when attrition is high, and trust is low, I am excited for a future of work that is collaboratively connected with artificial intelligence (AI) and tech. I am excited for a time when robots do the things they are best at, or things that people don’t want to do — like lifting heavy items, testing chemicals and crunching data — so that people are freer to do that they’re best at like adapting to changing situations and coming up with creative solutions to problems. However, an optimistic approach to a widespread introduction of robotics into the workplace isn’t common and many of my prospective employers and future managers do not share my view point.

A quick search of Google Images on the subject of ‘Robots’ is enough to validate most people’s fear of broadscale robotic replacement of human-kind. The search results are scattered with sci-fi machines resembling mechanical human beings (picture Wall-E and Pepper) confirming the generally fearful belief that whatever can be automated, will be automated — even humans themselves! However, the stereotypical human-like robots are a minority design and do not accurately reflect the broad, innovative applications of what a robot means in modern society. Misguided by such images, we’ve been fuelled to falsely fear machines that resemble humans and, as a result, have been blinded to the many positive ways in which diverse robotic systems are already penetrating many aspects of our lives. Fear not the robotic invasion, because robots are here in force and transforming our lives in ways we may not even realise! High tech, vision-equipped robots are active within most sectors of society ranging from intricate medical procedures to national defence strategies. In fact, there are scarcely any areas of our present lives left untouched by robotics.

Robots are not an alien species. AI (Artificial Intelligence) or the science that underpins robotics, is, in fact, the product of human creation and innovation, thus illustrating the symbiosis of humans and robots. AI is often wrongly referred to as a separate entity, even as a dangerous adversary. In contrast, it is merely a tool created by humans that only does what we tell it to do. Rather than replacing human capabilities, technology’s greatest impact lies in complementing and augmenting them. AI can be used to predictably automate the dull, dirty and dangerous jobs of contemporary society thereby enhancing our existence. The question of ‘how far this will go’ is too complex for simple answers and no-one knows exactly how many jobs will disappear or be re/invented in the age of AI. For social and practical reasons, some roles can never be replaced by robots, remembering that the broad goal of technology as we know it, is to boost the productivity of the workforce, not to develop a totally autonomous system. Success will be a workplace where developers have designed and created technology to serve as a team player alongside people; enabling constructive collaboration.

However, there currently exists a cavernous knowledge gap between the creators of robotics and the everyday citizens who are using them. The ideal future exists when humans don’t have to become expert coders to work with AI, as machines will be advanced enough to understand and take instructions listening to a human voice. Further development is required so that future robots become more user-friendly in mainstream, everyday life, maximising human-robot interaction (HRI). HRI has brilliant potential for task simulation, particularly in the medical sector and manufacturing industry. This provides major opportunities for safer working conditions and is particularly relevant for a country as diverse and dispersed as Australia. An excellent example to illustrate this is in tele-robotics, where augmented reality, powered through a HRI system, would allow a human operator to work remotely as if they were present at a distant work environment. The future of HRI capabilities within robotics will be focused on reducing the complexity of robotic interface elements and improving the human sensing capabilities of robots to ensure that automated systems and technology are no longer treated as just a tool or a piece of equipment, but as a social-technical relationship that integrates the working tools, the operator and the materials to be transformed.

Through functions such as HRI, technology and AI will replace some work, but not necessarily the people who have done the work. To reach the optimum performance level, organisations must harness the two-way relationship of humans assisting machines and machines assisting humans. The most significant performance improvements will occur when humans and machines work together to complement each other’s strengths. When Garry Kasparov, one of the world’s all-time greatest chess players, lost to Deep Blue, IBM’s chess playing computer, he espoused that humans will not be left redundant or replaced but that they’ll be promoted to work with robots to create smarter tools. Kasparov believes that as robotics progresses, jobs will continue to evolve and adapt, opening new careers and industries. Already there are rapidly growing range of jobs in the fields of big data analytics, decision support analysis, remote control vehicle operators and customer experience experts. Much of the leading data around jobs suggest humans will continue to play a major role in the AI workforce with a sharp rise in the importance of creativity, complex reasoning, and social and emotional intelligence — the uniquely human skills — in many jobs. Employees will need to apply these skills when using the new technologies now appearing in the workplace to ensure powerfully positive collaboration between humans and their machine counterparts.

Understandably not everyone’s area of expertise is growing at the same rate, but this provides an opportunity to rethink the shape and character of the workforce. There will be diverse future opportunities for those displaced by the introduction of robotics and automation, however, this will be reliant upon future HR agendas focusing on success that is both technical and human. We also see positive real-world examples of a workforce successfully integrating robotics with its people. Leading global mining group Rio Tinto just announced an increase in front line jobs after the introduction of their driverless train technology. Whilst there is amazingly positive potential within the human-robot collaboration space, there will be many social and ethical issues that arise within HRI and further introduction of robotics into society. To maximise the benefits and minimise the harmful disruption, corporate leaders must not make the catastrophic mistake of ignoring how individuals and broader organisations will be affected. Social policies that change the workforce and support reformation must be proactively developed and supported at an organisational level. However, there is no clear-cut solution to guide organisations through this period of volatility. There needs to be wide-ranging social policy that supports people through this broadscale workplace transformation whilst still protecting the integrity of an organisation.

As we move forward and navigate this period of change, the right question we need to be asking ourselves isn’t about which jobs are going to be replaced, but rather: what work will be redefined and how? AI will significantly disrupt and potentially empower the global workforce. The automated future won’t happen all at once and different jobs will be affected differently. As a young professional entering this volatile workforce, I am asking myself; how can I be ready?

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