When I read my futurist daily magazines and blogs, I am amazed by the quantity of catching titles explaining how many jobs will be replaced by automation and robots in the next years. It’s a serious topic. Especially when your profession is in the list of those that can get lost. Some predictions appear to be fairly correct and grounded in proper foresight analysis, some are just marketing to get the reader attention. Anyway the topic deserves a bit of analysis. When I was younger I received the suggestion to do something technical, a job having a big value for the community or private companies, like finance, or become a lawyer or a doctor. Now it seems that those jobs are at risk and it would be much better to be some kind of artist, whose creativity cannot be replaced by a machine.
Let’s proceed with some order. First of all we have to separate what seems to be similar, but it isn’t. 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 exist since the last century and they are spreading relatively slow. Or at least slow enough to offset the job destroyed, with new jobs created to realize 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 the number of industrial robots operative in 2013 are slightly more than a million. Whatever is the real number (it’s not even easy to classify exactly what a robot is), the point is that is lower than the population of Trinidad and Tobago (which is a beautiful place indeed!). The reason is pretty simple, our (western) economies are based upon services, robots in the warehouse are mainly about production.
Humanoid robots replacing people in the B2C fields, it’s another story and will come at an ever lower pace. I’m thinking about all those roles like customer service and client relationship, marketing and sales, front offices etc. Here the reasons are not exclusively economic, but predominantly behavioral. It’s the way human being have been “programmed” (I use this word ironically) by the evolution that won’t allow it.
Human behavior and robots
Let’s see 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 to their creatures body language and ways to make a good first impression, but as long as you recognize 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 than they can be programmed in a robot, people will always have the feeling they are not natural;
- People assign meaning to the tone of voice: I believe it’s a long long way before you can a conversation with a robot featuring enthusiasm, sarcasm, boredom or any emotion generated by the tone of voice; in my experience, no passion equal to no purchase;
- Mimicking other people’s body language makes them like you more: we don’t have to call for the NPL principles here or explain what the mirror neurons are to realize that it will be very hard to sympathize with a machine (by the way they 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 man.
These considerations are just to invite the reader to think that “not all glitters is gold”, when it comes to scaring articles alerting about the future of humanity. And sometimes things cannot be boiled down to “just” economic or financial motivations. People behavior is part of the equation and exactly because we are complex and flawed, machines are not going to replace us everywhere at the speed 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.