Rob Gear, IT expert and futurist, PA Consulting Group

Analysis: finding symbiosis for human-computer collaboration

Have we become sufficiently accustomed to the notion of 'having a relationship' with our computers to the point where we are now prepared to treat them as bona fide co-workers?

Most people may see personal computers as indispensable companions - even claim to be smitten by them for what they bring us; but could that regard extend to accepting the notion of 'computer as a colleague', working alongside us as legitimised equals?

Re-aligning relationships between man and machine is one of the vitally necessary steps that we need to start thinking about as the workplace begins to feel the effects that emerging computer systems based on machine learning and artificial intelligence will have on employments trends over the next 10 years, predict some technology analysts. The claim is allied to suggestions that even fairly rudimentary automated technology is already poised to cause hundreds of thousands of job losses.

And unlike the first phase of new IT-driven employment changes – when computer-driven robots took over assembly lines, say, or new technology resulted in upheavals in the print industry – the next transformation will hit white-collar staff , or 'knowledge workers'. According to some forecasts it's even going to affect professions such as law and media which, up to now, have utilised ICT technology to consolidate job security.

Among the first to warn of this impending upheaval were MIT scholars Eric Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, whose book 'The Second Machine Age', published at the start of 2014, describes the technological forces that are upsetting future prosperity for human workers, as computer learn to  do more of the tasks we're supposed to excel at. The AI revolution is doing to white collar jobs what robotics did to blue-collar jobs [in the 1980s and 1990s], Brynjolfsson warned at a recent presentation for McKinsey Quarterly.

The term 'robot' needs redefinition for use in this context. It does not mean the electro-mechanical factotums of sci-fi, nor indeed the hissing and sparking arms of the automotive assembly lines; rather, it refers to emerging technologies based on advanced machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) techniques – sometimes using a combination of elements from both fields – to create expertly-informed, autonomous software systems capable of handling ever-more successful jobs – and that includes applications ranging from CRM and CAD/CAM, to medical diagnoses and financial trading.

The employment market is used to self-managing production lines, but is relatively unprepared for these robots to take on the knowledge-based tasks commonly regarded as the preserve of human supervisors, according to Rob Gear, Futurist at PA Consulting Group's Foresight and Innovation Unit. He believes that significant swathes of salaried personnel will have to adapt to a “new world” where commerce, policy makers, and education strategists will need to understand the reasons why we need to adapt.

Gear is author of a briefing paper, 'The Robots Are Coming', showcased at a PA Consulting Group's 'Mind versus Machine' innovation event that took place in London earlier this week. He says that we should not assume that, like other technology-based 'revolutions' where the disruptive technologies cause contraction in the short-term that will ultimately fuel economic expansion over time, new employment and new markets for electronic goods and services will eventually evolve.

“In previous waves of automation resulting increases in productivity have – in the end – generated wealth,” he says. Despite concerns similar to those now being voiced, new jobs were created to replace those lost; but there's no evidence that history will repeat itself. “The new wave of automation is different – it has the potential to automate the work of entire occupational areas.”

Cashiers, airline check-in desk clerks, travel agents, and financial traders, for example, could end-up almost completely obviated by customer-facing technologies with ML/AI back-ends. Think about that the next time you self-serve in your local bank or supermarket: could be that within a decade there'll be no in-store staff, just self-serving customers kept in line by batteries of watching surveillance cameras.

Gear's message is not altogether one of concern: “There are still many human skills and qualities that machines cannot easily replicate – those that are not easy to standardise or codify into an algorithm.” They include leadership, motivation, intuition, empathy, abstract reasoning and lateral thinking.  The business author Don Peppers has noted that discovering new problems is something that computers can't really do – and are unlikely to be able to do in our lifetimes, Gear says.

Part of the solution, he suggests, is for humans to develop ways to collaborate with computer systems on a more equitable basis: rather than computer systems being our tools, they become proto-colleagues who make autonomous contributions to emerging tasks an challenges. First we have to accept that new opportunities for collaboration with 'machines' could add significant value, because there are many things a machine can do more efficiently than a person.

Explains Gear, “Ultimately, we could achieve a greater degree of 'human-computer symbiosis'. This would mean people and machines co-operate in making decisions and controlling complex situations without inflexible dependence on predetermined programs.”

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