Managing the automated workplace: Humans vs. chatbots vs. cobots

Who's afraid of the automated workplace? IBM's Gene Chao answers questions on how chatbots, cobots and AI are impacting jobs and why hybrid labor requires new management skills.

Although studies have found that many workers fear being displaced by automation, research indicates that automation and robotic technologies are more likely to be used for certain tasks and not entire positions.

"The Future of Jobs Report," published in 2018 by the World Economic Forum, stated "nearly two-thirds of today's job roles entail at least 30% of tasks that could be automated based on currently available technology, [but] only about one-quarter of today's job roles can be said to have more than 70% of tasks that are automatable."

Based on such findings, the report said that organizations, as well as individuals, will need to find "a new equilibrium in the division of labour between human workers, robots and algorithms."

How will the automated workplace play out? Gene Chao, global vice president and general manager for automation at IBM, offers his insight on how automation, AI, bots and related technologies will impact human workers and the automated workplace of tomorrow. He begins by making a distinction between visible and invisible automation.

What is visible vs. invisible automation?

Gene ChaoGene Chao

Gene Chao: Visible automation are things like chatbots -- things that, in and of themselves, are systems. They're mimicking human behavior, whether they're listening to humans or performing another task. The invisible piece is what's happening within the system.

The visible part is much easier to adapt to and accept. The current flavor comes in the image of a friendly bot or robot. That's different from the past. When we grew up, it was evil bots, doom and gloom. Think Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator. I believe the world has overly rotated to make bots seem very benign and jovial-looking, but certainly, a friendly entity is much more easily accepted. IBM has a physical robot that we named Cogni. It is literally a robot that follows you around and talks to you.

How will humans acknowledge or identify bots in the automated workplace? Will they all have names?

Chao: The automation components of the digital workforce will have personas so you understand what they do. Their work is visible, but it is not a hologram. Their personas are around job roles and functions; for example, there is a virtual accountant. There may be a software-based workforce taking care of tasks such as technology support services.

What's to fear in the virtual accountant or virtual IT guy?

Chao: One of the fears is that intelligent automation or the bot will take my job. It's seen through a very binary, black-and-white lens, when, in fact, there's a hybrid scenario. There are many functions, jobs, experiences that are human-only. There are others that can be bots-only. But the vast majority of jobs will be hybrid, where we have to coexist.

In manufacturing, they're called cobots [collaborative robots]; humans are using robots to help do heavy lifting or assembly line stuff. And now we've taken that [model for cowork] into the thought workforce. That's changing how work gets done by identifying who and what does the work.

How widespread will the hybrid automated workplace be?

Chao: We see it happening almost everywhere, but how deep or broad it goes depends on the functional area, the type of work and the depth of expertise needed for that work.

Almost everybody uses some degree of artificial intelligence or automation [in their work] today; they may not notice it, but it's happening. If you're using any major system of record, inside those system transactions are augmented services through a series of technologies. Some of them are intelligent; some are task-oriented. And anyone working in analytics is getting information that has been somewhat massaged by automation and AI.

And now there are certain jobs you don't even realize are done without human touch. When Netflix starts to learn about what you watch and sends recommendations to you on what you might like to watch, that's not done by anything other than software. Or let's talk about technology support. In almost every company the technology service and support mechanism is almost always an interaction with a virtual agent. For example, you can text and chat into a service desk for a password reset. That's done without any human intervention at all.

How will that change the future of staffing?

Chao: Let's hang onto the virtual accountant example: Right now, the minority of the [financial services] staff will be virtual accountants doing mundane tasks, but as [the bot] gets smarter, it will get closer to [their being capable of performing] treasury functions. So, the CFO has to be very well-rooted in managing onshore labor, offshore labor and now a third leg: the virtual labor force.

Editor's note: In part two of our Q&A on the automated workplace, Chao discusses the importance of change management and offers pointers on how to make the marriage of human and digital labor a success.

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