Computer Futures

Are robots coming to take your job?

Robots aren't just part of factory production lines any more - they're fast crossing over into everyday life.

Combined with ever-advancing programming they can increasingly carry out sophisticated multi-stage tasks, making decisions by way of logic and reasoning – albeit by rules set by human programmers. If (though some might argue it’s when) they can be programmed to read and react to human emotions, learn exponentially and apply their own experience to future actions, then there's a very real chance they could be the workforce of the future.

But there’s the rub for many people. Excellent memories and even programmed responses are not the same as core human characteristics such as genuine creativity and critical thinking. So while some robots may move into jobs that are currently thoroughly human, surely we cannot be on the road to obsolescence?

The ripple effect

The increasingly sophistication of computer data gathering and decision making allied with a mobile platform is what makes the evolution of robots inevitable. As these units become more and more complex they’ll undoubtedly have an impact on some roles that at the moment still require human intervention. Take a role like driving. If vehicles can drive themselves, what becomes of bus, train and taxi drivers? Even more than that, it’s the wider impact of these changes. What does it mean for the companies that insure the human drivers when we’re no longer in charge behind the wheel? Likewise if robot cars that have been built by robots can become aware of their own engine and environment diagnostics, then what will become of garages that make a living through annual checks, servicing and repairs?

And when decision-making is based on empirical data that is instantaneous and is regarded as more trustworthy than human interpretation, what does that mean for robots moving even further beyond routine, repetitive and non-cognitive actions? Could they be just a few steps away from managerial positions in the workplace?

What are the limits of artificial intelligence?

Experiments have shown people respond well to robots in positions of authority, but doing what a cashpoint tells you or what a computer reading indicates is a far cry from a machine - even one with 3D-machine-vision, sensory comprehension and rigorous programming - being given management responsibilities.

Although technological developments are progressing at breakneck speed, they only count for something if they have viable real-life application and commercial potential.

Prototypes are all well and good but they'll remain a novelty rather than a reality if they serve no real purpose or have sky high manufacturing costs. Mass production will make robot workers more affordable over time, but given the complexity of designing and engineering a robot sophisticated enough to replace an actual human being it's unlikely this will happen any time soon.

Let's just return to that point about complexity: There's more to being an effective manager than giving instructions, keeping track of deadlines, devising schedules, recording project progress and reciting motivational phrases. Judgement and decision-making are important, too, and these very human traits are something robots haven't yet managed to replicate.

It seems that programming robots to come across as human, natural and social is easier than bestowing more complex skillsets upon them. Maybe they should consider a career in HR rather than IT.