Robots, work and place

by Paul Carder on November 7, 2015

It’s the weekend. I’m not paid by UWE Bristol (my ‘day-job’) to think at the weekend. I can stop working (attending meetings, teaching, writing emails). But I can’t stop thinking – it’s going to happen anyway. As Descartes wrote, “I think therefore I am”. This is part of the challenge of understanding what “work” actually is, for the few of us (knowledge workers¹) – most of the world is still sweating and grafting a living. They know when they have stopped work, downed tools, or whatever their terminology may be. We, knowledge workers, are probably almost as alien to some of the people doing ‘real work’ as robots are to me. All humans are sentient beings, and the robot is not. But the supposed equality of all sentient life forms would be lost, during working hours at least, on the person threading beads onto a string in India, for a rich person’s child to buy on holiday. These poor workers are robots in human form, in a sad and real sense, not like the androids of science fiction.

I have never taken much interest in robots until now, possibly as I have had little interest in what they do. But now I find myself interested in what they do not do! Robots don’t think. They are computers, with useful appendages. Robots are told (programmed) what to do, and they only do that thing when someone tells them to do so. That strikes me as being very similar to much of what we once thought of as ‘work’. Much of this work does not require a sentient life form – and the more sentient the individual is, the more likely their mind will wander, and errors will occur. Robots don’t think, so they do not get bored. So, we humans have creatively made robots which can, on the one hand take mindless soul-destroying work away from people (for a Forbes debate on this issue see this link²), and on the other hand remove their livelihood …a double-edged sword, if ever there was one….

But wait… what is this I am reading in the Guardian newspaper³ today? Robots can think! The article says:

“…the development of artificial intelligence means computers are increasingly able to “think”, performing analytical tasks once seen as requiring human judgment.”

Much of the newspaper’s article draws on a 300-page report, revealed exclusively to the Guardian, in which analysts from Bank of America Merrill Lynch “draw on the latest research to outline the impact of what they regard as a fourth industrial revolution, after steam, mass production and electronics”.

I have picked out two types of work discussed by the Guardian, which would not have been considered (by most people, I would guess) to be a possibility for robot-replacement: financial advisers and doctors.

“Financial advisers Bespoke financial advice seems like the epitome of a “personal” service; but it could soon be replaced by increasingly sophisticated algorithms that can tailor their responses to an individual’s circumstances.”

The implication here for ‘places’ is unclear, but we could imagine some scenarios. Informed users accessing the financial advice via their connected device, anywhere. Less informed users still needing to visit a financial adviser, to talk through the process (but perhaps not in the next generation?). And more work for software companies, located anywhere. In many cases, the user and the service provider (in this case, the adviser) do not need to meet, and the activity can be asynchronous. Will financial advisers offices and retail outlets be needed?

“Doctors Some 570,000 “robo-surgery” operations were performed last year. Oncologists at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York have used IBM’s Watson supercomputer, which can read 1m textbooks in three seconds, to help them with diagnosis. Other medical applications of computer technology involve everything from microscopic cameras to “robotic controlled catheters””

Again, the implication here for ‘places’ is also unclear at this time. The medical service ‘user’ would generally need to be at a specific place (a hospital, or somewhere with the appropriate facilities). But the doctor may be elsewhere. In some cases the ‘user’ would be at home, or still at the scene of an emergency. These things already happen: kidney dialysis patients can have home-treatment machines, and paramedics can treat patients at the emergency scene using head-sets connected to a doctor back at base in the hospital.

Robots change work changes places

The two scenarios above are examples of how the physical places that have become familiar may change, or the proportion of use of places may change, through the increased use of robots. Fewer financial advisers (if that is the way things go) will mean reduced demand for office space. Other new service offerings may replace the old, and office demand would normalize. Conversely, we will always need doctors, but they may not work in the same way, or in the same places at the same times as they do today.

The one area which seems reasonably clear and certain is that there will be growing work for the location-independent digital employees. For example, the software ‘coders’, technologists and data analysts, who together make the computer-driven technologies work smoothly. Where will they work, and in what kind of places? Largely in offices, labs and service-centres; more of the same. Potentially, this ever-growing group of digital employees could mostly be located anywhere. Except where the service user and service provider are working on time-critical activity, like the doctor and paramedic. Whomever is supporting them will need to feel close by, even if they are not physically close. Whereas, a non-critical online transaction, such as the financial advisory applications discussed, could be delivered from anywhere in the same way as much of back-office of financial services is already delivered.

The corporate occupier will be most affected by where the corporation finds and recruits these growing numbers of digital employees. Where are they being educated and trained? This is a concern for politicians and executives at the highest levels – will your country deliver enough people with these advanced digital skills? Will they come to where you are now? Or will you have to build new facilities for them in places where they want to be? Spaces to think? I think, therefore I am…I want…I demand…  Robots would be so much less demanding – but quite boring!

Refs:

1. The Work Foundation (2009), Knowledge workers and knowledge work: A knowledge economy programme report, London, UK.

2. Vanian, J. (2015), Robots: Will They Steal Your Job? Fortune, 4th November

3. The Guardian (2015), Robot revolution: rise of ‘thinking’ machines could exacerbate inequality, Thursday 5th November.

 

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

James Pepitone November 8, 2015 at 11:27 am

I had to chuckle at your mention of BoAML using robots for financial advice. I suspect they and many other large “service” providers are closer to this way of operating than the public (and their soon to be ex-employees) might imagine, as most shareholder-centric firms like BoA long ago reduced the customer to a target for standardized and pre-scripted solutions. Remember the senate hearings on financial practices leading up to the financial system collapse? Aptly referred to as “customer intimacy” (i.e., grab your ankles), this approach is tailored specifically for the service provider to maximize shareholder value (at the expense of customers). The real challenge they have faced until recently is how to get the customer to virtually imagine being served when in fact they weren’t. Recent advances in amoral and unethical corporate conduct has finally broken through this last barrier.

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