Industrial robots and robotic arms have been around in manufacturing for years. But a functioning humanoid robot is still decades away: they are still struggling to tackle simple "human" tasks. Andrea Ferrante of 31december2099.com gives his view on the skills robots need to crack before we all should start worrying about being replaced by machines.

Automation is mainly about production, it’s predominantly in the B2B. It requires entire processes to be re-designed and takes time. It’s dangerous and it will replace many humans in the long term, but robots in the warehouse have existed since the last century and they are spreading relatively slowly. Or at least slow enough to offset the amount of jobs destroyed, with new jobs being created in order to realise and manage the automation. According to the International Federation of Robotics, since 1998, a total of about 172,000 service robots for professional use have been counted in their statistics (updated in 2014). According to other sources it seems that the number of industrial robots operative in 2013 is slightly more than a million. Whatever the real number is (it’s not even easy to classify exactly what a robot is), the point is that it is lower than the population of Trinidad and Tobago (which is beautiful place indeed!). The reason is pretty simple, our (western) economies are based upon services, and robots in the warehouse are mainly about production.

Humanoid robots replacing people in the B2C fields is another story which will come at an ever slower pace. I’m thinking about all of those roles involving some sort of client relationship, such as customer service jobs, marketing and sales, front offices etc. Here, the reasons are not exclusively economic, but predominantly behavioural.

Let’s consider a short list of items.

  •  People read other people in an instant and unconsciously: people make decisions about people in less than 1 second; robot designers might teach machines body language and ways to make a good first impression, but as long as you recognise a cyborg in front you, they will be flawed;
  • People assign meaning to hand gestures: some hand gestures are universal across cultures and languages, some are peculiar to a specific geography; even assuming that this can be programmed into a robot, people will always have the feeling they are not natural;
  • People assign meaning to the tone of voice: I believe we are a long way off from being able to have a conversation with a robot which features enthusiasm, sarcasm, boredom or any emotion generated by the tone of voice; in my experience, no passion is equal to no purchase;
  • Mimicking other people’s body language makes them like you more: it will be very hard to sympathise with a machine (by the way, these are neurons that allow us to literally experience what the person in front of us is experiencing and explain the so called “empathy”);
  • Clothes make the man: or “dress for success” - robots won’t change their clothes frequently;
  • People are persuaded by those similar to them: or those attractive to them; I’m not sure I will be ever attracted by a robot, although I admit there’s a growing literature about sex bots and the possibility of humans having an affair with a machine;
  • Speakers’ and listeners’ brains sync up during communication: it has to be proved that a sync can be achieved between a natural and an artificial brain;   
  • People obey authority figures: as robots will follow some kind of rules to “serve” humans, an order or a suggestion given by a robot will have less power than the same thing said by a human.

These considerations are just to invite the reader to think that “not all that glitters is gold”, when it comes to scary articles about the future of humanity.  Sometimes, things cannot be boiled down to “just” economic or financial motivations. People’s behaviour is part of the equation and because we are complex and flawed, machines are not going to replace us at work as quickly as some gurus tell us.

My source and inspiration for this post is based on a book which I consider a Bible of human behavior, titled “100 things every presenter needs to know about people”, written by Susan Weinschenk.

 

Andrea Ferrante is a CFO of innovative startups, turned futurist for passion. He runs the popular blog, 31december2099.com, and can also be found on twitter @31december2099.

 

 

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