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Will robots really replace humans?

The world is falling foul of an epidemic that can only be described as ‘automation anxiety’. This is the fear that, as robotic technology develops and becomes increasingly sophisticated and affordable, humans will find themselves replaced — professionally and even personally — by automated processes and robots. This phenomenon has spread across the globe in recent decades, aided by a range of reputable sources adding fuel to the fire and casting doubts on the future of the human workforce. However, Stephen Parker, CEO and founder of digital engagement and business automation specialist Parker Software, argues that automation may, in fact, improve interpersonal relationships and careers.

Automation anxiety is not, strictly speaking, a new phenomenon. Ever since automated machinery was first put to work alongside human employees, there has been the fear that this technology would destabilise society and replace humans.

These concerns existed even prior to the development of true artificial intelligence (AI). During her opening speech at the British Robot Association Conference in 1981, the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher went as far as directly addressing these concerns by declaring, “There is [another] fear that robots will replace jobs… the heart of this conference is about the differing roles of man and machine.”

In the years since, increasingly sophisticated AI has blurred this line considerably. The development of machine vision is constantly widening the boundaries of what tasks industrial robots can complete, while more complex programming techniques have enabled the creation of software that is capable of automating a number of office and telemarketing tasks. AI is quickly developing many of the same competencies as the human workforce.

Yet, despite constant development over recent decades, it is only recently that this new strain of technophobia has reached fever pitch. This is due, in part, to warnings from experts such as the Future of Life institute, endorsed by lauded scientific figures from Elon Musk and Steve Wozniak to Noam Chomsky and Stephen Hawking, that we verge on a global military AI arms race.

However, the likeliness of this apocalyptic vision becoming reality is slim. While science fiction has regularly recalled Isaac Asimov’s infamous first law of robotics — “a robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm” — it is unlikely that the innate survival instinct of human beings would allow us to risk robots making us obsolete, or worse, their pets. This survival instinct is fuelling the spread of automation anxiety.

The rise of the robotic workforce

One of the fundamental arguments against the use of automation and robotics is that they could replace human workers, leading to widespread unemployment. Even if human survival instincts prevent us from creating potentially harmful or dangerous AI, concerns remain that these technologies will pose a threat to personal finance and career prospects. The Bank of England’s chief economist Andy Haldane even hypothesised that robots put 15 million UK jobs at risk.

Fortunately for us, this is not actually as bad as it may sound. While robots may put certain types of jobs at risk, it is more likely this will result in human job titles and roles adapting rather than simply being replaced. During her speech in 1981, Margaret Thatcher posed the question, “What would many Victorians have replied if you had asked them what could be the employment consequences of the replacement of the horse by the internal combustion engine?” As we know, the jobs of the coachmen and blacksmiths were not replaced, but were simply repurposed for the production line.

The twenty-first-century rise of robotics will likely be no different. Most automation is implemented into working environments to complete mundane, time-consuming tasks that offer minimal job satisfaction to employees and even less return on investment for businesses. In the case of industrial robots, the roles they fill may even be ones that pose health and safety risks to workers. In essence, the robot would be helping the human workforce and protecting them from harm.

This fact that automation and robotics are actually helping, not harming, humanity undermines the legitimacy of automation anxiety concerns. Take PC software, for example. While it is seldom considered to be part of the robotic revolution, it is worth remembering that AI is programmed into all robotics through software. As such, PC-based business automation software has developed in recent years to a point where it is capable of performing complex functions that exhibit a rudimentary understanding of sentiment — all to help human employees perform with more ease, effectiveness and efficiency.

Many of us are already reaping the benefits of this software intelligence. There’s clear evidence that 2016 has witnessed a resurgence of interest in automated response technology, with big businesses such as Facebook and Amazon investing in AI-driven chat bot software. While there have been notable failures along the way (the less said about Microsoft’s infamous Tay AI, the better), these bots have been widely successful in changing the face of customer interaction and public access to information. Just ask Siri, Cortana, or even MyKai.

Customer service departments, in particular, are greatly benefitting from automation software. Where once employees would spend extended periods of time occupied by administrative processes, such as updating central databases or answering customer queries either by phone or live chat, these time-consuming activities can now be automated with software to streamline the working day.

Setting up bots to deliver personalised responses during out of office hours makes perfect business sense, while using software such as Parker Software’s ThinkAutomation to operate SMS hotlines makes the task far more manageable. Yet, even in these scenarios, a human follow-up is required — showing the very real possibilities for human-bot symbiosis.

Of course, human-bot symbiosis doesn’t quite roll off the tongue as easily as automation anxiety, and it’s much easier to be afraid of what we don’t understand rather than find evidence to counter unfounded fear. In reality, automation is changing the way that our society functions but there is no indication that this is anything other than a positive change.

Automation anxiety is a modern strain of technophobia and is unnecessarily causing distress in many members of the general public, largely due to seemingly reputable sources declaring it disastrous. This must stop.

Well-respected technology experts and elected officials alike have a responsibility to quell these fears and highlight how automation will benefit society. It will, of course, change the nature of the job market, but it will not destroy it. Instead, it will aid productivity and create vertical markets for coding, programming and maintenance that will, in turn, generate exciting new career opportunities.

Automation is something to be welcomed rather than feared, and influential figures must come forward to lead this discussion. By embracing the evolution that robotics and automation are facilitating, we can meet a more efficient future with open arms.

Stephen Parker