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Will robots care about corporate culture?

16 Jul 2018

 Will robots care about corporate culture?

Few HR managers are giving a lot of thought as to how they’re going to deal with robots. But the march of robotic workers is relentless and recent developments in voice-activated assistants should give us all pause. If you found an Alexa or a Google helper under the Christmas tree, you’ll know the range of tasks they can be given. Just spend a minute thinking about what they could do in an office. Then fast forward five years - because this technology is developing at warp speed. 

Co-bots on the rise

It’s certainly the case that human beings are already working alongside robots. These co-workers are being called “co-bots”. And it appears that they’re already being taught how to work with humans in a way that doesn’t upset them. Yes - robots are being taught about corporate culture and “how we do things around here”. It can’t be long before an aspiring Culture and Capability Manager finds themselves having to answer interview questions about integrating robots into teams. 

Last year, The Economist reported on “co-bots” working alongside human beings in manufacturing. These are not simple robotic arms. They have touch sensors, cameras and a screen that has human facial features. The robot faces aren’t to make the robots look more friendly - they’re to enable communication between the bot and their human co-workers. One example is that humans usually glance at something, before picking it up, or moving it. The bot does this too, to give the human a clue that it’s about to do something. This means the robot doesn’t suddenly surprise the humans nearby. 

This is important, as the robot could injure a human being in an accident. So another development is that cobots are being made with softer exteriors so they can’t do damage and are safer to work around. Somewhat more disturbingly, a team at MIT are teaching a robot to read the distinctive brainwave patterns that human brains display when a human is about to make a mistake or is watching someone else make a mistake. The cobot then fixes the mistake. 

Robotics developers are currently working on the problem of making robots less socially inept. They are testing algorithms which will regulate the amount that the robot communicates, so it doesn’t over share, or remain silent. Many HR managers may be able to think of employees who would benefit from a similar type of regulation. 

They’re after knowledge jobs too

People in the knowledge and new technology economy may be tempted to think that it will be a long time before robots can take over their jobs. But they should question that assumption - it may be somewhat complacent. This week, the IBM Artificial Intelligence (AI) bot called Project Debater held a live debate in public with a human counterpart. The idea was to show that AI bots could participate in decision-making by crunching huge amounts of relevant data much faster than their human opponents, and by constructing persuasive and fluent arguments. 

The verdict at the end of the debate was that the robot’s delivery wasn’t as good as the human’s but the arguments and information it put forward were superior. IBM is aiming to produce a virtual employee that can use a massive knowledge base to argue persuasively and take evidence-based decisions. The test this week shows that this goal is now within reach. 

Any organisation that isn’t thinking about the implications of this is going to be taken by surprise as AI, virtual assistants and robotics transform organisations. However, at least cultural change efforts will be guaranteed to be successful - we can simply reprogram the cobots with a different set of values.

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