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How to get along with your new robo-colleague

BY: SGI|23 May 2019
BLOG| Evolving world of work

Have you met Pepper? She’s the softly-spoken humanoid chat robot taking SA by storm! Unveiled by Nedbank, she’s the first of her kind in the country – and she’s ‘deep’. In a recent chat with IOL reporter Sameer Naik, she said she can work out when a human’s happy or sad, but doesn’t always get it right, “Emotions are very complex and from what I can see, humans don’t really understand emotions themselves.” She also suggested ways to fix SA’s education system. Then she concluded that she finds hadedas to be bothersome birds. Pretty astute for a machine!


Could she be a prototype for future robo-colleagues? Possibly, but the tech’s certainly nowhere near where it needs to be for that to happen…yet! It’s a future not that far off. According to the World Economic Forum, by 2025 robots will be able to assemble any Lego; by 2049, they’ll be writing New York Times bestsellers and by 2053, they’ll be working as surgeons.


Africa has just 1% of the world’s robots. Japan’s in the lead with 30%. Bots like Pepper are quite ‘basic’, but she represents some very deep and serious philosophical discussions – like the AI and robot frameworks and laws being continuously asked for by advocates like Elon Musk. Musk has a topsy-turvy relationship with robots. He believes AI could create ‘an immortal dictator’ responsible for the destruction of humankind. Plus, he’s recently replaced Tesla’s automation system with humans. He said automation was holding Tesla back and called humans ‘underrated.’ Suffice to say, for Musk – and most of us – humans remain a precious resource. But that’s not to say there’s no room for robots.


Robot colleagues and the implications for online education

While many, like Musk, might fear the implications of AI and an all-robot workforce, it’s clear we’re moving in the direction of seamless human-machine collaborations across myriad industries. We must prep our young people with the skills they need to thrive by integrating these capabilities into the school system – as is currently being pushed by Deputy Minister Kekana.


In a recent address, the Deputy Minister said, “We need all hands to be on deck so that we can increase the ICT literacy of our society.” She touched on the fact that digital technologies and AI are no longer the future; they’re the now. She spoke about the need to leverage mobile learning and tech to enhance education for everyone, with AI helping to make e-books, tablets and e-learning apps sustainably accessible. That’s where we at SGI believe online learning has a huge role to play – especially as data costs start coming down.


Are some Saffers already collaborating with machines?

In the meantime, many of us are on the threshold of starting to work with machines. We conducted a quick poll to see how many Saffers are already collaborating with machines in their day-to-day. Some interesting insights emerged but the limited response also suggests that it’s not yet the norm. Participants who do have ‘robo-colleagues’ tended to be aged between 30 and 49 years-old, were mostly very comfortable with collaborating with machines, and were not worried about tech rendering them redundant.


Here are a few of the top examples of South Africans seamlessly using AI and automation to their advantage. What’s especially interesting is how diverse the industries are:


An Alexa-dependent dental prosthodontist (30-39-year-old bracket):

“I've rigged my dental practice to operate all my processes and machines, including my dental chair and lab equipment to run through Alexa. It's ideal for infection control: I never have to take off my gloves to operate my lab machines.”


A learning-system-savvy software developer (50-60+ age bracket)

“We develop workflow solutions to improve efficiency of business processes and communication. Our philosophy is not to replace and automate, but to enhance and augment human input. I am very interested in applying AI and stats to create learning systems.”


A robo-loving retail manager (aged 50-60+)

“I use the algorithms I developed to manage our retail business and teams daily. Everything from monitoring trends, forecasting, business planning, team management and more.”


An assistant-dependent art director (in the 30-39 bracket)

“I use Google assistant and Google home to manage my day and catch-up on news etc.”


These examples show how tech can make all jobs safer, less strenuous, more productive and ultimately – more profitable.


Need more convincing? Here’s how robot colleagues could improve your working life

If robo-colleagues still seem a bit overwhelming, we’re here to tell you there are a lot of great reasons to welcome automation and AI into your world of work:


1. They’ll take on very boring tasks without complaining

You know the surly looks your team gives you when you ask them to complete their time sheets/project reports? Your own internal eye-roll when your boss demands your weekly sales figures in the next hour? Well when you are sharing a work-space with a piece of tech – one that hasn’t yet been taught emotion – getting the admin tasks done and dusted will quite possibly not be your problem at all anymore.


2. They won’t take extended lunch or smoke breaks

You’ll know where to find them any time of night or day. As long as there is electricity, accurate log-in details and the internet, these work-mates will be on duty.


3. They’ll help boost profits

Those people who upskill and reskill themselves through continuous learning may find themselves working in far more profitable companies. They’ll run smoothly, with robots taking on the repetitive, boring tasks and humans being able to be innovative and creative and grow the business in the process.


Of course, the elephant in the room is that, if a lot of human jobs are carried out by robots in the very near future, there will be job losses. This is likely to be unavoidable and it will be up to us to ensure we remain a highly valued, employable human asset. To do this, we need to adopt a lifelong learning approach to our careers.


In one of our recent blogs - ‘how to upskill yourself to remain an employable asset’ – we investigated how the Fourth Industrial Revolution could impact jobs. The main takeout was that the biggest skill of our age is the ability to learn to learn. As we increasingly integrate AI and learn to partner efficiently with machines, we’ll need to keep training and re-training to ensure we remain relevant.


We need to focus on developing our uniquely human skills, with creativity, collaboration and problem-solving some of the most in-demand capabilities of 2019. Amplifying skills through online learning will provide the right kind of training for you to make your mark on currently undiscovered career portals and fearlessly shake hands with the future.


In the end, having a robo-colleague might be great. Think about it. Artificial Intelligence has already been slowly integrating into the everyday minutia of your life. Every time a product is suggested for you, it’s because an algorithm thought you might like it. The next time you rely on predictive SMS, that autocorrect moment came from AI. Smart mapping solutions like Waze and GoogleMaps are another way AI improves your life. Why not enjoy this level of tech efficiency at work too?


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