Coexisting with Robots — The Future Workplace Reality

In a Silicon Valley startup, Fetch Robotics, about 50 employees and 125 robots work cohesively. According to CEO Melonee Wise, the human employees see the robots as pets, even calling them “pups.” There isn’t any fear of a robotic uprising, or robots taking over human jobs. Rather, both humans and robots simply coexist. This is becoming the new normal, with many companies employing robots to supplement their workforce as opposed to completely replacing it. Despite the fear that robots are predicted to take over most jobs, the future might, in fact, be more about working alongside robots rather than robots running the workforce completely.

Robots Do Jobs Humans Can’t

At Fetch Robotics, Wise states that “no one has ever lost a job because of our robots.” Customers approach Wise because they simply can’t hire enough people. “There’s 20 percent annual turnover and an estimated 600,000 jobs in the United States going unfilled”, says Wise.

Chris Volinsky, assistant VP of big data research at AT&T Labs, also feels that robotics and AI technologies have more benefits than negatives. For example, AT&T uses drones and machine learning to expedite inspection and maintenance of cell towers.

“(The drone) flies up with HD video and sends footage back to a technician on the ground to inspect,” Volinsky says, “It might take a half hour to do a full detailed inspection of one of those towers, even though the technician is only interested in certain parts of that video.” AI can thus be used to identify potential problem areas and highlight points of interest the technician needs to analyze. In this way, the drone isn’t replacing the role of the technician— rather it is increasing efficiency by reducing the time it would have taken for such a task from an hour to a matter of some minutes.

“I like to think of AI as taking the mundane parts out of people’s work and helping humans focus on their real expertise, which is identifying problems and focusing on what else needs to be done,” Volinsky says.

Disruption Will Happen

Obviously, this doesn’t mean that the workforce won’t be affected at all by technological changes. There will be displacement and disruption. Wise’s long-term plan involves deploying more robots and thus needing more people to install, program, and maintain the robots.

But the fear that AI will take over economic livelihood has been felt as a sharp blow in places like the manufacturing sector, as large swaths of the industry automate labor previously done by humans.

In a PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) report from March 2017, nearly 40 percent of U.S. jobs were slated as a “high risk” for automation by the early 2030s. These numbers were corroborated by research published in 2013 by two Oxford University researchers that estimated that 47% of U.S. jobs could be taken over by robots by 2033. There’s now even a website where people can plug in their job description and get an estimated probability that robots will replace that particular role.

New Jobs Created for Humans

PwC acknowledges that new tech typically means the creation of new jobs for human workers as well, conceding that “the net impact of automation on total employment is therefore unclear.” Like most evolutionary technologies, robots and AI pose challenges but also offer a vast array of opportunities for those willing to grab them.

Dennis Yang of online learning platform Udemy says that rather than wasting time fearing robots, we should all be motivated to upskill, learn and grow. In this new digital age, complacency is dangerous. The ability and enthusiasm to learn new things will separate ambitious professionals from the rest. Those who keep their hard skills current through ongoing learning and continuously work on their soft skills will do the jobs that robots can’t.

One aspect that robots can’t provide yet is human interaction. Strong, personalized communication has become an important soft skill to hone. As stated by Leighanne Levensaler, SVP of corporate strategy, Workday, “We need to keep relationship skills. I went to an automated, self-serve restaurant the other day, and I felt so empty when I left. Contrast that with my coffee shop. We are hard-wired for relationships—you want the smile, the connection.” No matter how advanced robots get, they are still artificial by nature. Human empathy can’t be engineered.

As AI and robots enter the workforce, humans will need to be adaptable, continuously learning new skills while taking advantage of the efficiency of new technologies to solve problems. In the future workplace, we’ll embrace new machines to simplify difficult tasks, help with mundane daily jobs, and assist us. Consider snackbot, a robot designed to bring employees cookies when they type “Robot, I’m hungry” into Slack chat at Fetch Robotics. Now, who wouldn’t want that?

A symbiotic relationship between humans and robots doesn’t seem so far-fetched, and it definitely beats the thought of a future that brings a war for prominence.

A version of this post was originally published at

Telepresence Robots: The New Look of Telecommuting

Forget video conferencing. Now there’s an even better way to telecommute—one that allows you to move, interact, and engage as if you were right in the same room as your colleagues. Perhaps even cooler—it allows you to ride a Segway from afar. Telepresence robots are the new wave of technology coming to workplaces across the country, and they’re making their way into almost every sector, from healthcare and education to art and entertainment.

I remember the first time I encountered a telepresence robot. I was visiting a local hospital, and the robot was on-hand to translate important health information to a patient who did not speak English. The idea seemed brilliant for a few reasons. First, the comfort of being able to speak in your own language with an actual human could be a huge help in the healing process. And second—from a purely business point of view—the option of using robots to deploy human translators as needed meant hospitals were no longer limited to the number of translators they could afford to hire. They could simply outsource the service to a translating company that was ready and available when needed—offering a much larger array of languages than the hospital would be able to offer on its own.

It seems translators aren’t the only ones who got the message. Now, telepresence robots are making their way into mainstream offices, allowing employees to enjoy mobility in a whole different way. Once relegated to long phone calls and teleconferences—often feeling left out and marginalized by onsite employees— “robotic” employees can speak at eye level, move alongside colleagues, and offer their insights and ideas without missing a beat. But beyond the personal and psychological benefits of being more fully “present” in the workplace, what are the business-side benefits of offering robotic telecommuting? The following are just a few:

Makes Dangerous Tasks Safer

Now, rather than sending structural engineers, rescue teams, or police forces into potentially dangerous areas, companies can send those professionals via robotic telepresence. The option allows experts to scope out the situation using their specific know how—without risking their lives.

Makes Experiential Learning Even Easier

Now, schools, colleges, and businesses no longer need to factor in airfare, hotel, bus, and food expenses into the cost of experiential learning. A type of virtual reality light, robotic telepresence allows you to visit museums, tour cities, or participate in professional conferences—all without leaving home. And you don’t even have to wear VR goggles to do it.

Allows You to Hire the Best—And Experience Them in Person

Mobility has been a huge help in allowing companies to hire the best person for the job, regardless of where they live. Now, companies can experience their insights and personality even easier, pulling them into impromptu discussions, ad hoc meetings, and even lunch outings. For the first time, remote employees can feel like a real part of the team.

Offers a More Seamless Work Experience

In the past, remote employees often missed out on group work and interaction. Now, robots can be wheeled aside for team projects, sidebar conversations, and other personal engagement that video conferencing simply doesn’t provide. It allows for a more seamless—and efficient—work experience, and allows you to benefit from the employee’s full range of talent, as well.

Cuts Down on Multi-tasking

We all know one of the likely side effects of being on a long and arduous conference call is that it allows us to catch up on emails, check our phones, and—if we’re working remotely—do the laundry. Robotic telepresence limits the ability for employees to take on those other tasks, forcing them to focus on the project—and people—at hand. That in turn makes the meetings less arduous and more productive overall.

As the world continues to move toward mobility and remote work environments, robotic telepresence offers a great way to keep our human connections as they should be—human—albeit with technology’s helping hand. The advancement is one that will surely become more common in offices around the world—and I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw family members visiting our homes as robots soon, as well.

Additional Resources on This Topic:
One Goal, One Team: The Remote Workforce Conundrum
How Mobile Technology Impacts the HR Industry

Photo Credit: Janitors Flickr via Compfight cc

This article was first published on FOW Media.

Will a Robot Take Your Marketing Job

Are you panicked yet that artificial intelligence (AI) will soon put you out of work? Could a robot take your marketing job? Some of the brightest minds in Silicon Valley are warning of massive job displacement across the economy in the next decade.

But there remain good reasons not to be terribly alarmed. At least, not for a while.

First, the bad news: according to, “Between 9 percent and 47 percent of jobs are in danger of being made irrelevant due to technological change (in the next 15 years), with the worst threats falling among the less educated.”

Some panelists at SXSW this spring were even more apocalyptic. Bill Gates said, “AI is the biggest threat to the human race. I can’t believe more people are not worried about this.” Steve Wozniak added, “Fast machines will eventually get rid of slow humans.”

There’s no question the nature of work will continue to change, of course. Automation has been gradually displacing human labor since before the industrial revolution. And AI will expand the range of tasks machines can perform, through “smart” automation.

Yet the future for workers may not be so bleak after all, particularly in skilled trades and in creative professions like marketing. Here’s why.

Robots Can’t Make It Alone—Even in Manufacturing

Robots have been used in manufacturing since 1959. And it’s true, automation in general, and robots in particular, have had a significant impact on factory employment. The number of U.S. workers employed in manufacturing fell 39 percent from its peak in 1977 to 2012. Five million factory jobs have disappeared since 2000, partly due to trade but primarily due to automation.

However, those trends don’t quite tell the whole story. The U.S. has actually added one million manufacturing jobs since employment in the sector bottomed out in 2010. And growth is continuing. According to the latest figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS):

“In February (2017), employment in manufacturing rose by 28,000. The manufacturing diffusion index increased from 50.0 in January to 65.4, its highest level since November 2014. A value above 50 indicates that more component industries gained jobs than lost them.”

Factories are having trouble finding workers—at least finding those with the right skills. In Minnesota, for example, “nearly 5,000 manufacturing jobs are unfilled — a number that will likely grow as more and more employees move into retirement.” And nationwide, Bloomberg projects, “Over the next decade, 3.4 million manufacturing jobs are expected to become available as baby boomers retire and economic growth spurs work opportunities… but a skills gap could result in 2 million of those jobs staying unfilled.”

How is it possible that employment may grow and factories may face (human) worker shortages even as robotics and AI technologies advance? Simple: Automation increases productivity (which increases societal wealth) and makes the U.S. more competitive globally. We’ll need more workers and more robots.

Driverless Vehicles Roll Forward Slowly

A recent U.S. government report—Artificial Intelligence, Automation, and Economy—predicts driverless automated vehicle (AV) technology may eliminate 2.2 to 3.1 million existing U.S. jobs. But any such job losses that occur won’t happen immediately or abruptly. They will be spread out over time.

Further, the report concedes that certain types of drivers (e.g., long-haul truckers transporting goods) are more likely to be replaced than others (school bus drivers transporting children, for example). The study also notes, “New jobs will also likely be created, both in existing occupations—cheaper transportation costs will lower prices and increase demand for goods and all the related occupations such as service and fulfillment—and in new occupations not currently foreseeable.”

And those projected job losses assume AV technology will become reliable and trusted. Though great progress has been made (driverless vehicles are being tested in several cities beyond San Francisco, Detroit, and Pittsburgh), some of the hardest work remains. As the expression among software developers goes, the first 90 percent of a project takes 90 percent of the time; and the last 10 percent of the project takes the other 90 percent.

AV technology will need to work nearly flawlessly before adoption becomes widespread. Business Insider has reported that lawyers are “salivating” over self-driving cars because they are “going to get a whole host of new defendants,” with deep pockets, in the event of any crashes.

Development of AV technology that works dependably regardless of weather, daylight, and other conditions remains challenging. As Gary Marcus, a best-selling author, entrepreneur, and professor of psychology at NYU, pointed out in TechCrunch regarding AI, “look for example at a driverless car, that’s a form of intelligence, modest intelligence, the average 16-year-old can do it as long as they’re sober, with a couple of months of training. Yet Google has worked on it for seven years and their car still can only drive —  as far as I can tell, since they don’t publish the data —  like on sunny days, without too much traffic.”

Still, robots and AI already have displaced some workers and will continue to expand into new jobs, particularly those that deal with things rather than people. It will likely be a long time before robots are trusted to care for children, or adults with special needs, but they’ve already been running warehouses for years.

Public policy will need to address those job losses, for example with displacement assistance and retraining programs. But standing in the way of AI and robotic progress would be counterproductive (literally); by increasing productivity, they raise living standards across society. Schemes like a robot tax are a bad idea.

So, Robots Can Weld and They Can Drive—But Can They Market?

Technology has eliminated wide swaths of employment in the past, from telephone operators and electric typewriter repairers, to photo technicians and video rental store cashiers. It’s now threatening various types of clerks, professional drivers, even insurance underwriters and appraisers.

But AI is more likely to change how marketers work than to replace them. It will supplement the efforts of human workers rather than take their jobs. Why?

First, consider one type technology already in wide use: marketing automation software. Despite the label, these applications don’t “automate” marketing; they merely enable marketing professionals to set up sequences of email messages which are then automatically sent out using (human) defined sequences and branches.

There are marketing professionals, agencies, and consultants who specialize in optimizing the use of marketing automation systems. In the words of Marketing Week, marketing automation platforms “don’t destroy jobs, they just change what jobs are needed.”

Second, there are several distinctly human characteristics essential to marketing that will likely prove vexing to reduce to mimic with silicon.

Interpretation: An AI-based tool like PaveAI can evaluate 16 million possible correlations within Google Analytics then produce a report showing the most significant findings. But it still requires a human to interpret the results.

For example, knowing that the highest conversion rate correlates with visitors who land on your home page on a weekday during business hours is about as unsurprising as any data point could be to a B2B marketer. But discovering the lowest conversion rate associated with a particular section of your website visitors often reach through organic search is far more interesting, and actionable.

Sentiment analysis presents another type of problem. Words like bomb, sick, mad, bad, and beast are generally considered negative terms to associate with your brand; yet all have, within recent memory, had a positive connotation in slang. People get that (hopefully). Machines will likely struggle.

Creativity: Marketing is an almost uniquely left brain and right brain profession. Data analysis, where AI can help, is of course vital.

But emotion plays a significant role in every considered purchase process, impacting both consumer and B2B buying decisions.

The creative side of marketing appeals to our emotions, and that side requires distinctly human creativity. It’s difficult to imagine, for example, even the most sophisticated AI systems coming up with something like E*TRADE’s invest in vests commercial.

Originality:  AI can help marketers optimize current channels, but it won’t develop radically new ideas. For example, AI can help optimize and personalize email content—but AI never would have come up with the idea of using email for marketing in the first place (that was Gary Thuerk of Digital Equipment Corporation).

AI may help with optimizing messaging and timing on social networks. But it couldn’t have spontaneously computed Oreo’s famous dunk-in-the-dark tweet… Or suggested creating a profile for KFC’s famous founder on LinkedIn. And it certainly wouldn’t have invented a sporting event to support brand content marketing, as Red Bull has done with Crashed Ice.

Perspective: Not every question, in any realm of life, has a clear-cut answer. Even when looking at the same underlying data, reasonable and intelligent people can disagree, based on their beliefs, assumptions, experiences, and definitions—in short, based on their perspective.

For example, is it possible to accurately measure the ROI of social media marketing efforts? AI could provide an answer—and with the right data sources, even perform the calculations—but it couldn’t provide the perspective on the answer that a human thought leader provides.

In marketing content, it’s often the perspective that’s as interesting as the answer. It’s difficult to imagine an AI system weaving a narrative from a unique or interesting perspective. It’s even harder to imagine AI writing this post.

Persuasiveness: Great marketing in any form—text, visual, video—combines logic with emotion to move buyers to act. AI has logic literally at its core, but trying to teach AI to understand human emotions has so far been an enormous challenge.

Robots: The New Job Creators?

An analysis by The Economist on the impact of robots and AI on employment suggests not only that the fear of massive job losses is likely overblown, but that in some cases automation may actually increase the number of jobs for humans. A study of the American job market from 1982 to 2012 found that:

“Employment grew significantly faster in occupations (for example, graphic design) that made more use of computers, as automation sped up one aspect of a job, enabling workers to do the other parts better. The net effect was that more computer-intensive jobs within an industry displaced less computer-intensive ones. Computers thus reallocate rather than displace jobs, requiring workers to learn new skills. This is true of a wide range of occupations…

“So far, the same seems to be true of fields where AI is being deployed. For example, the introduction of software capable of analyzing large volumes of legal documents might have been expected to reduce the number of legal clerks and paralegals, who act as human search engines during the ‘discovery’ phase of a case; in fact, automation has reduced the cost of discovery and increased demand for it. Judges are more willing to allow discovery now, because it’s cheaper and easier… The number of legal clerks in America increased by 1.1% a year between 2000 and 2013.”

The analysis also reiterates that almost every new wave of technology in the past has raised the specter of mass unemployment, only to end up creating more jobs than were destroyed. The term “technological unemployment” sounds like a concept Gates or Wozniak may have devised. The phrase was in fact coined by economist John Maynard Keynes in the 1930s. The total U.S. labor force more than doubled in the following five decades.

In marketing, AI will take over routine and data analysis-intensive tasks, but also create new opportunities for human employees—for example, in training and teaching AI systems. AI is already being used in areas like personalizing product recommendations and more granularly targeting advertising.

But AI requires human training, testing, and teaching both during the implementation phase and on an ongoing basis. Both human testing and human judgment are needed up front in terms of preparing AI platforms for the real world and determining when they are ready to go live.

Harvard Business Review article points out the level at which AI systems are “good enough” varies widely by application; a mistake by Alexa or Siri in understanding speech and ordering the wrong item is annoying. A mistake by a self-driving vehicle may be fatal.

Once live, AI platforms—just like a human graduating from college and entering the workforce—need continued training over time to increase their capabilities and stay current with changing tastes and technology.  And that means people, as explained in VentureBeat: “AI’s advancement up the value chain is only possible with the aid of human intelligence.”

Historically, technological advancements have always ended up creating more jobs than they destroyed. Today may prove to be different, but for now, it appears robots are more likely to be workplace assistants rather than job terminators. As a marketer, you probably don’t have to worry about robots or AI taking your job. But you will need to be prepared to work with these technologies to do your job better.

Photo Credit: The Adventurist and MOCIST Flickr via Compfight cc

This article was first published on V3Broadsuite.