As artificial intelligence continues to get smarter, social robots are poised to replace humans and become receptionists or personal assistants to bosses, journalists and lawyers in the offices of the future.
Meet Nadine, a ‘Friendly’ Robot Receptionist
Decades ago, bosses hired secretaries to record their daily schedules and typists to churn out contracts and reports. Today, bosses can do without secretaries by “downloading” a virtual personal assistant on their smartphones. Such artificially intelligent apps include Speaktoit, Google Now or 24me, which organises your schedule and even reminds you about an important meeting or an overdue bill.
What’s next? A humanoid robot receptionist or PA is well on its way…
Meet Nadine, a friendly robot receptionist working at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU). The life-like brunette hair robot, contrived by scientists at NTU, was developed using intelligent software similar to Apple’s Siri or Microsoft’s Cortana.
The 1.7m tall Nadine was designed to resemble a ‘younger’ doppelgänger of Professor Thalman, one of its creators. She possesses good memory and has her own distinct character, mood and emotions. Not only does she greet visitors, smile, make eye contact and shake hands, but she can also remember your name and your previous conversation with her the next time you meet again.
A robotic future presents us with a legion of benefits and opportunities, but it also sparks another concern: Will our jobs be replaced by robots?
Disruptive Technology: Artificial intelligence (AI) –
Will Robots Take Over Our Jobs?
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is an area of computer science that imbues human intelligent behaviour such as visual perception, speech recognition, decision-making, and translation between languages into computational artefacts or machines to perform tasks normally done by humans.
The application of artificial intelligence (AI) is now used in a wide range of fields, including computer, science, healthcare, finance, security, advertising, telecom, transportation, and automotive, and is “one of the biggest technology shifts that is happening in the industry”, said Frank Chen, a partner at Silicon Valley venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz.
“In the long run, I think we will evolve in computing from a mobile-first to an AI-first world,” said Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google Inc., on an earnings call with investors in April.
In the last five years, US Tech powerhouses like Google, Twitter, Salesforce, Apple, Intel, Yahoo, IBM, and AOL have purchased close to 30 AI startups, of which five of the acquisitions occurred in 2016, stated by CB Insights.
The imminent AI trend and the rise of robots have triggered times of uncertainty and panic in job markets. As artificial intelligence continues to get smarter, social robots like Nadine are poised to replace humans and become receptionists or personal assistants to bosses, journalists and lawyers in the offices of the future. Based on UK figures, a typist has a 99% probability of automation while a personal assistant is 68% likely to be replaced.
Professor Thalmann, an expert in virtual humans and a faculty member from NTU’s School of Computer Engineering, told Channel NewsAsia that robots could effectually take over routine jobs such as receptionists, cleaners or drivers (as in self-driving cars) in the next five or 10 years.
On the bright side, a humanoid robot with enhanced senses, dexterity, and intelligence such as Nadine can be used as a companion for children and lonely seniors, especially dementia patients. As stated in the NTU press release, Prof Thalman said, “As countries worldwide face challenges of an ageing population, social robots can be one solution to address the shrinking workforce, become personal companions for children and the elderly at home, and even serve as a platform for healthcare services in future.”
Yet another report from Forrester Research claims that by 2021, “intelligent agents and related robots” will only wipe out six percent of jobs. The report noted that the main disruptive job industries of these technologies would be customer service, marketing, logistics, transportation, and the automotive industry.
“By 2021 a disruptive tidal wave will begin,” the report said, and a bigger displacement of certain jobs will eventuate.
Jobs that are highly mundane and repetitive are most likely to be replaced by AI technologies – though it is quite plausible that some day, machines could replace ‘good jobs’ like radiologists as computers are rapidly getting better at analysing images.
Currently, there already exists a legal software that outperforms human lawyers, an IBM’s Watson that is able to diagnose lung cancers and leukaemia more accurately than a human doctor, and robo-advisers that are providing algorithm-based portfolio management advices online to clients without the need of financial analysts. Journalists are not spared either. Automation has been helping the Associated Press’s sports division generate reports for small events.
Back home, the Singapore government is looking into robotics to solve the reliance on foreign workers in low-paying jobs. The Ministry of Finance has announced the over $450 million National Robotics Programme in Budget 2016, which aims to support labour-strapped small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to invest in AI technologies, revolutionising Singapore’s economics in the next three years.
Lim Say Leong, assistant vice president of marketing at Swiss automation giant ABB, said at the MTA 2015 precision engineering conference that firms should better prepare themselves for AI technologies as this will portend a more productive and less labour intensive future, saving resources and time required to produce high-quality goods. He also added that robots could replace humans in jobs that are deemed to be dirty, dangerous and menial.
Indeed, a robotic future presents us with a legion of benefits and opportunities, but it also sparks another concern: Will our jobs by replaced by robots?
In Mr Lim’s opinion, robots may pose a threat to some countries, but not labour-shortage Singapore. Instead of stealing our jobs, robots solve the problem of hiring workers, and existing workers can be retrained to handle more value-added jobs, he opined.
Regardless of the different opinions surrounding the ‘elimination’ or ‘creation’ of jobs by robots, the inexorable progress of AI gives fresh impetus to a new economic state in Singapore.
Will New Jobs Be Created?
Despite fears that AI technologies could diminish jobs, there is a bright spot amid the gloom. Mr S Iswaran, Minister for Trade and Industry, said that demand for new jobs such as robotic maintenance support would arise, according to an article entitled ‘Singapore start-up develops robot for food delivery’ published on Channel NewsAsia’s website.
In fact, as pointed out by Martin Ford in his book ‘Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future’: “The mechanisation of agriculture vapourised millions of jobs and drove crowds of unemployed farmers into cities in search of factory work. Later, automation and globalisation pushed workers out of the manufacturing sector and into new service jobs. Short-term unemployment was often a problem during these transitions, but it never became systemic or permanent. New jobs were created and dispossessed workers found new opportunities. What’s more, those new jobs were often better than earlier counterparts, requiring upgraded skills and offering better wages.”
Correspondingly, a ‘Positive Impact of Industrial Robots on Employment’ study by the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) in 2013 predicted that three million jobs have been created directly by the one million industrial robots presently in operation. Furthermore, one million high quality jobs will be created due to the rise of robots in the next five years, particularly in industries such as consumer electronics, food, solar and wind power, and advanced battery manufacturing.
Certainly, some jobs will be replaced by robots, but new jobs will be created, according to Gudrun Litzenberger, Secretary General of IFR.
Regardless of the different opinions surrounding the ‘elimination’ or ‘creation’ of jobs by robots, the inexorable progress of AI gives fresh impetus to a new economic state in Singapore. The need to reskill and retrain workers to take on new job opportunities of higher value-addedness is one of the greatest challenges faced by Singapore in the approaching revolution of AI.
Recognising the need to develop local robotics expertise, the Singapore government has initiated these training schemes in its institutes of higher learning and SkillsFuture programme, according to Mr S Iswaran.
If we can’t beat machines at being machines, we can triumph over the machines by being human. – With reference from Geoff Colvin, Author of ‘Humans Are Underrated: What High Achievers Know that Brilliant Machines Never Will’
Being Human Will Save Us
Robots may be efficient in doing a precise, consistent and accurate job, but they are after all made of cold and hard metals, which cannot replace the human touch. Robots lack emotional and social intelligence, and do not possess the ‘heart of compassion’ for mankind.
Studies revealed that the following jobs, which require social and emotional interactions, are least likely to be replaced by robots. These jobs include nurse (0.9%), midwife (0.9%), psychologist (0.7%), speech therapist (0.5%) and manager of a pub or licensed premises (0.4%), according to BBC, because while robots can ‘simulate’ human intelligence (artificial intelligence), they are unlikely to replace humans in the areas of social and emotional intelligence.
“Treating someone requires care, concern and emotions. Additionally, robots don’t look like humans,” opined Ang Kok Kiong, an undergraduate doctor at International Medical University. At the end of the day, what matters most to a patient is human touch, empathy and communication, which robots are unable to offer.
“When there is no patient contact, patients might feel fear, which might cause their body system to go haywire instead, a syndrome called white coat hypertension,” he added.
Just as American author Geoff Colvin contended in his book, ‘Humans Are Underrated: What High Achievers Know that Brilliant Machines Never Will’: “One thing humans can do that robots can’t: Be human. If our intellect can’t save us, our capacity for feeling might. And it’s those interpersonal skills — relationship-building, collaborating, empathy, and cultural sensitivity — that are poised to become top currency,” he told Business Insider.
He feels that if we cannot beat machines at being machines, we can triumph over the machines by being human. Jobs that require empathy, and wholehearted and deep interaction with people, are the least likely to be replaced.
For instance, doctors need to show empathy to defeat robots that are better at diagnosing illness, and an organisation needs staff that can understand clients. When all is said and done, we still prefer to work in a pleasant workplace filled with happy and close-knitted human colleagues rather than a team of emotionless robots.
Comparatively, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, co-authors of ‘The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies’, listed three areas where humans have an advantage over machines: (1) Creative endeavours (2) Social interactions and (3) Physical dexterity and mobility. Jobs that require physical dexterity include dancing; a robot does not have the physical dexterity to leap and jump like a ballerina.
Surprisingly, at the end of the day, it seems that humans need to return to their origins, i.e. their humanity, to defeat robots. Beyond anything, creativity, empathy, compassion and physical dexterity are innate in human nature, and these are traits that robots do not inherently possess.