You can’t trust robots. Hollywood has been telling us that since long before robots existed. Think HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey or, you know, the entire Terminator franchise. They’re not just coming for our jobs; they want to kill us all.
Yet, an IDC survey released late last year says the future of work is human-machine collaboration. It predicts “the contributions of digital workers will increase by over 50% in the next two years.” Half of the survey’s respondents were introducing robots into the workplace and one-third already had them. What are these executives doing? Are they trying to bring about the annihilation of humanity?
Let’s take a step back and look at the difference between bots and digital assistants. What can you expect from them as both become more prevalent in our workplaces? How should you proceed to integrate these non-human helpers into your work? Can they be trusted?
You’re the Boss.
To be clear, in the knowledge economy, we’re almost never talking about actual hunks of metal walking/rolling around delivering your coffee. Bots are just software. Some work behind the scenes (often referred to as back-end); some work with you on your desktop. Some developers have programmed for you to run a business process (or part of it); others you can program yourself, little-to-no coding required.
Regardless of the specifics of your bot, you can always expect the same things: reliable consistency, accessibility, and transparency. You are still calling the shots. The software simply follows the logic it was built and programmed to follow. If your bot bothers you, it’s because it has hit a problem/outlier that requires human intervention, and it was programmed to ask for it in a certain way, at a certain time.
Bots and digital assistants should only take over the work you don’t want to do: the time-consuming, mundane data entry and configuration. That’s why tech-savvy employees have been building macros (which are simple bots) to automate their busywork for years. In this discussion of task automation, one CEO encourages workers to see workplace AI as Iron Man’s suit. It doesn’t replace Iron Man; it works with him and gives him cool superpowers.
Bots as Band-Aids
Here is my distinction between bots and digital assistants: I think of a bot as a fairly mindless, back-end brute. It’s forcing a legacy system to share data with the newer tech tools on the block. Digital assistants, on the other hand, are programmed to execute a process with some level of logic and intelligence. As that business process evolves – if you are comfortable and make the necessary technical investments – your digital assistant can get smarter and become a bigger help to you.
Bots are popular in HR, Finance and IT. Those ubiquitous business units that are always struggling to make a bunch of different systems work together. Because the problems they face are so common, enterprise software providers realize it’s lucrative to solve those problems. Eventually, the back-end integrations currently being forced by bots will become new product features and enhancements. The legacy system will be abandoned or upgraded. The bot Band-aids will no longer be necessary.
To Personify or Not to Personify?
So you have these new co-workers of varying intelligences. Should you name them? Make them part of the team? The answer there depends on what your team needs.
Fast Company says many employees are intimidated by the prospect of digital co-workers. People worry they won’t be smart enough to work with robots. To counteract that concern, one robotics executive recommends naming the bots like dogs (e.g., Fido or Lassie) to indicate they are useful, but subservient, companions. If your team is struggling to get comfortable with its bots, naming could help to normalize the situation and build cohesion.
However, as our name indicates, Mind Over Machines prefers to maintain the hierarchy of humans as superior to technology. Why anthropomorphize a machine? Instead of a name, you might consider an identifier, something you call the bot based on what it does: The Invoicer? The Reconciliator? And I really don’t see any need to name a back-end bot. You’re only ever reminded of its existence when it malfunctions. Does it need a name just so you can cuss it out?
Self-Assess to Survive & Thrive
Bots and digital assistants are programmed to work for you. You’re the boss. They do exactly what you tell them to do. That said, offloading a bunch of your repetitive, high-volume tasks can leave you feeling adrift. “What do I do now?”
This is an excellent opportunity to recapture your human value. What’s that spark you were hired for, but maybe you haven’t been able to access or maximize it because you’ve been so burdened with minutiae? Identify, explore and develop your uniquely human skill set. Creativity, communication, collaboration and innovation are all good places to start.
Go ahead. Welcome that digital co-worker. Trust it enough to delegate your mind-numbing tasks. Then you can use your reawakened brain to devise and implement a human-centric plan for building business value. And if those bots ever get out of line, fire ‘em. Or just pull the plug.
Jeff Kalb is an artist, which makes him a visual problem solver. His eye for process and detail earned him a crash course in management in his early 20s, supervising 24 graphic designers back when print designs had to be sent out for typesetting. That all changed with the introduction of Apple’s first desktop. When the internet hit its stride, his formerly print team was deluged with requests for “homepages.” Since then, Jeff’s career has grown right alongside the web and all the emerging technologies it’s made possible.
Give him a whiteboard and clients with a vision, however fuzzy it may be, and Jeff is an innovative, visual thinker. As an independent consultant, tech firms hired him to help prospective customers flesh out their project ideas, making them tangible enough to actually be able to estimate. Over the years, Jeff evolved his early information architecture skills into full-blown UX design expertise that has taken many forms, from boutique enterprise branding to accreditation process automation. Now, as Mind Over Machines’ new Senior Director for Product Management, Jeff takes a holistic approach to solving our partners’ long-term business needs.
Jeff and his wife, Terri, are poised to embrace the empty-nest life with one daughter already working as a mechanical engineer; the other, who chose to follow in dad’s footsteps, will graduate next year with an art and design degree. Now there will be more time to landscape, grill, and continually curate Jeff’s 1200+ diecast car collection. (Interest piqued? You’re gonna want to see the Hot Wheels Redlines. They’ll take you back.)