Reimagining work: What robots can do for us

Posted Jul 14, 2017 by Tim Sandle
A new report asked twenty technology experts to imagine the state of robotics, machine learning and artificial intelligence as it could be in the year 2030.
Shimon  the robotic marimba player  can listen to  understand  collaborate with  and surprise his hu...
Shimon, the robotic marimba player, can listen to, understand, collaborate with, and surprise his human counterparts.
Image courtesy of Georgia Institute of Technology
The use of robots has tended to be reserved for tasks people either don't want to do or which are considered dangerous. This is set to change, according to a new report that considers how emerging technologies will change the future.
The report ("The Next Era of Human-Machine Partnerships") takes the form of a futurist study initiated by by Dell Technologies, working in partnership with the Institute for the Future (a strategic research and educational organization).
An engineer looks over Roboy  a humanoid robot developed at the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory o...
An engineer looks over Roboy, a humanoid robot developed at the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory of the University of Zurich, at CeBIT on March 9, 2014 in Hanover, central Germany
John Macdougall, AFP
The coming ages of robotics
On the topic of robotics, the report sees a conceptual shift in the way robots have been deployed into the workplace. For many years now robots have performed activities that humans do not want to do — such as being placed in dangerous situations like nuclear power plants, or in performing repetitive tasks, such as some types of packing or car manufacturing.
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If the above can be thought of as the first age of robotics, a so-termed “second machine age” will be different. During this second phase, robots will start to carry out more cognitive functions, aided by machine learning and artificial intelligence.
According to the technology experts in the report, these paradigm shifts are set to occur in two stages up to 2030: beginning with algorithms that recognize patterns; followed by machines that make reliable inferences from data (cognitive intelligence).
Whether these important stages of robotic development are reached by some type of android, virtually indistinguishable from a human being, is speculated upon. Although such a development, given the current technological trajectory, is seen as many years on from the report's 2030 projection date.
Where will they all go?
If robots move beyond the mere replacement of the manual laborer where else might they appear? The report predicts greater use of robots in the health sector or for care-giving, assuming robots develop the ability to empathize and reason (at least to a level that can convince most humans). Other potential areas are supermarkets, hotels, and across the customer service sector. Manual activities will continue to, propelled by companies seeking cost savings in terms of labor spend.
There is a difference in the way people will react towards robotics, the experts predict. It is far more we will see cooperative relationships between workers and machines, rather than simply workplaces full of machines programmed to undertake tasks that are separate to those performed by people. Machines will bring in far greater speed, automation and efficiencies, leaving people with more time to consider creative activities.
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Robotically rose-tinted glasses?
Robots will, however, replace many of the jobs and roles that people have performed for decades. This won't, depending on the sector, be a wholehearted replacement of workers by technology but the type of work will inevitably change.
It is important that the education system, for instance, keeps abreast of changes in the world of work so that the next generation can garner the necessary skills. As to what these jobs might be, the report can only conjecture, for the consortium of experts agree that around 85 percent of jobs in 2030 have yet to be invented.
With any piece of futurism, whether the predictions hold true depend on factors like the projected pace of technological innovation, human motivation and the assumption that no major world events could stymie projected progress. There is also the uncertainty of business strategy.
Dell's own introduction to the findings suggests that the majority of businesses know they need to transform digitally; however, only a small proportion are sure how they will do so and a larger segment are uncertain as to the way such technological leap will pan out. Without the enacted ambition to go digital, the robots of the future might take a while longer to arrive.