This column is called ‘People Matters’ for a good reason. People remain the key element in organisational success, even in an increasingly technological world. As Mark Littlewood pointed out in The Times (September 8, 2019), ‘Robots are on the rise but never underestimate the human factor.’
Angela Epstein made a similar point when she wrote, also in The Times (September 17, 2019), ‘Human behaviour should be the focus of airport security’.
Both writers make the point that while technological advances can enhance workplace activities, especially high precision and drudge work, the human being cannot (yet) be replaced by artificial intelligence in terms of human interaction, observation, creativity and sense-making.
And while progress is fast in developing automated diagnostic tools which may eventually be more reliable than professional experts, caring, touch and simple everyday tasks such as folding towels and plumping pillows are a long way off.
But with the speed of advance in automation and artificial intelligence, will this state of affairs continue? Should we be concerned that we will all be deskilled and unemployed (the ‘dystopian’ view), or should we welcome technology as a way of freeing us up for better things (a utopian perspective)?
We have a sense of déjà vu about this. We remember being told about the wonderful opportunities of e-mail which would free us of the need for paper, give us oodles of leisure time and free us to pursue more creative and leisurely pursuits. Yet, at the same time, dystopians (including many typists) were more concerned about losing their jobs.
The increasing use of robots is, ironically, bringing this debate back to life. Robots can alleviate routine mundane work; carry out dirty, dull and dangerous activities; go to places no human can go to; remotely detonate explosives; deliver parcels; take aerial photographs; scan suspicious items on security checks; load and unload heavy baggage.
These are all positive contributions to making the workplace potentially more human friendly, allowing the rest of us get on with the more creative and innovative jobs. Right?
The downside to this is that these very same helpers could turn into enemies: take over our jobs, rise up and ultimately destroy us. We come from a generation that avidly followed the BBC TV science-fiction series, Dr Who, where the dystopian view of robots prevailed, Daleks, whose only message was “Exterminate”, delivered in an hysterical high-pitched tone.
This is not just the stuff of science fiction. Some eminent writers, including Stephen Hawkins, have predicted artificial intelligence could become an existential threat to humankind.
So, should our view of the future be one based on optimism or pessimism? Should we hold a benign view of how technology can be used in the workplace or a malevolent view of how it can be manipulated?
Should we consider incorporating ethical and moral values into guidelines for development and usage as Japan, South Korea and China appear to be doing.
In our view, these are not simple ‘yes-no’ questions. Technology is neutral: it is how we use it that matters. Workplaces evolve. The nature of work changes. New skills and knowledge are required to shape as well as adapt to change.
The key is that we need to be in control and in the driving seat, ensuring that workplaces can be rewarding places for people. Otherwise this column may become ‘Robots Matters’ in years to come!