Why Workplace Automation Intelligence Can’t Replace Us Humans

By Adrian Bridgwater

Technology, the proliferation of devices, and the new era of virtualization (and its multifarious levels of implementation) have created ‘tectonic’ shifts in the business world – this basic truth we know to be so.

A mix of intelligent automation tools, suites, applications and whole computing platforms means that menial tasks can now be handled through software and the hardware that it serves.

Firms can set intelligent automation controls to analyze their bandwidth usage, internal data usage and even execute automatic software updates and upgrades – this kind of stuff is becoming commonplace.

The upshot, if you will, of this progression in the face of the rising robots is that ‘truly skilled and ultimately creative’ people are now the most valuable aspect of a business – but this new reality has barely sunk in, or been fully played out yet.

Redundant donkeys?

While so-called ‘blue collar’ workers will always be needed at many levels for many roles, the widespread development and evolution of automation means that some of the labor-intensive force needed for ‘donkey work’ (for want of more sensitive term) will start to become redundant.

But – and it’s a very important but – even white collar workers’ roles are being outsourced to robots as we shall soon clarify and explore below.

So with this in mind, what yardstick (if any) can we use to define and measure the point at which automation controls, processes, procedures…etc… should be brought to bear upon a business?

For example, if big data analysis allows the legal industry to automate some of the foundation level analysis in any given legal case, then at what point should ‘human intellect take over’ and provide the next steps?

Real robot detectives?

Or to put it another way, if intelligent software can quickly sift through millions of pages of base data to find the corpus delecti (concrete crime evidence such as a dead body) in a legal case, just how close are we really to a robot Jack Bauer?

The answer is… probably not that close in terms of full-blown personality, but a partial robot presence is just around the corner. You only have to look to the movies to see fanciful innovations becoming real.

Tom Cruise’s Minority Report touch-and-gesture recognition screens are fairly real; Dick Tracey’s video-phone smartwatch is pretty much here, and Captain Kirk’s flip-over mobile communicator is so real that it’s now an antique.

Okay we don’t quite do ‘beam me up’ teleportation yet, but you get the point.

The point here (in case you missed it) is that Tony Stark’s Iron Man automated ‘extra hand’ engineering robots are also quite real on any industrial production line — and they are starting (with sensors and beacons in the Internet of Things) to boast a good deal of intelligence also — even if they do still lack the Hollywood-esque inner ‘comedy machine personality’ designed for film.

So what will very likely happen inside the next half decade is the production and deployment of a good deal of what we might call ‘elemental robots’ i.e. robots that handle an element of a task (yes, on an automated basis) as prescribed by defined criteria.

And for companies that employ more knowledge-workers than machine operators (which is a great deal of firms), this could drive a whole new defragmentation of the workflow processes that has led the business to define its core competencies and very market proposition.

What about us poor humans?

More poignant than these questions even is the question of what it means for us humans as individual workers.

When we know more about the breadth, scope, and total potential of automation intelligence – at what point can we all reapportion ourselves so that we can start to be more productive in the work that we actually do?

While we will never seek to completely automate the entire human workforce — despite any suggestions of the third (or perhaps even fourth) industrial revolution — we need to be able to define (or at least get some compass bearing upon) the areas when organizations can create environments that support people to be more creative, productive and engaged.

No we’re not just talking about robots and robotics per se, but a new way of working.

Financial markets to fishermen

The great majority of technology vendors out there will explain that automation intelligence leads us towards a new economic model for any workplace… from the financial markets to industrial fishing.

Inside this new model we see:

– Core functions of the business increasingly being automated

– A workforce of more highly-skilled and creative staff brought in and developed

– Workers more directly involved in activities that differentiate firms from competitors

– Staff more focused on a firm’s core competencies

– All man (and woman) hours devoted to activities that sit closer to profitability

Help! What do I do first to automate?

Analogies with the human autonomic system are not out of place here. As Wikipedia quite succinctly notes, the human autonomic nervous system is a control system that acts largely unconsciously and regulates bodily functions such as heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate, urination and even sexual arousal.

In the same vein (pun not intended), when we look at the health of our IT systems, we should initially look to automate in areas:

– where IF-THEN conditional response action can be executed in reaction to defined data states and/or thresholds

– where self-healing remedial action can be brought to bear

So for example, where traffic on a web server reaches a certain threshold – we can define a gateway to establish comparatively automated access to additional cloud-based resources and increase our capacity. A human being doesn’t need to initiate the action, it happens automatically.

In the field of redundancy and automatic failover systems devoted to backup and disaster recovery, we find much the same threshold for automation i.e. when preventative or remedial action needs to be taken as a business imperative, then the decision to execute these controls should be automated.

Asimov’s 3 rules of robotics

So will the robots and the automated streams of intelligence work in harmony with the human race?

The answer (probably) is that things should work out better if we embrace open standards, open source, open governance and an open willingness to work according to Asimov’s three rules of robotics. Just as robots (and all computers) need a BIOS (Basic Input Output System), we humans need a sense of purpose, a defined mission, and a set of values.

Everyone can work autonomously, governed by the core rules if we all accept them.

As Dee Hock, founder of VISA, said:

Purpose and principle, clearly understood and articulated, and commonly shared, are the genetic code of any healthy organization. To the degree that you hold purpose and principles in common among you, you can dispense with command and control. People will know how to behave in accordance with them, and they’ll do it in thousands of unimaginable, creative ways. The organization will become a vital, living set of beliefs.

Workplace automation with embedded intelligence is here, we just need to love the robots and remind them that we humans are a democratic bunch. We are innately better at empathy and passion, and 100 years of SciFi and technical innovation won’t touch that which ultimately sets us apart from the machines.

Adrian HeadshotAdrian Bridgwater is a technology journalist with over two decades of press experience. He works primarily as a news analysis writer dedicated to a software application development ‘beat’; but is also an analyst, technology evangelist and content consultant. Follow him @ABridgwater.

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