When the Future of Work series was conceived, the intent was to handpick individuals whose work is futuristic or who are experts in future gazing what the evolution of work could look like. I also hoped I could interview a robot someday and came pretty close. Meet Sweden-based Furhat, the social robot that can serve customers, provide companionship, train employees or teach a language.
Did you know that the word robot comes from the Czeck word ‘robotnik’ meaning ‘forced worker’? While we are not strangers to automation, robots have been intimidating. Maybe it is something to do with the movies where we are fed with the notion that robots are born to eliminate the human race. However, experts in robotics do not believe so. Definitely not the makers of Furhat (read here about the making of Furhat). Robots help humans improve their own efficiencies and perform several tasks better. With Robo-Tech being the next wave of automation, I would not be surprised if we humans enjoy our interactions with robots much more than we do with other humans. Furhat CEO Samer Al Moubayed tells us more about robots and their role in our lives.
1) What does the future of work mean to you?
The future of work is about figuring out how we can improve society, live more balanced lives, and make the world better, all while maintaining high productivity levels. Our relationship with technology and robotics will be a big part of this question.
2) What according to you are the most important human behaviour traits that all robots must have?
It’s important to distinguish between robots and social robots. Robots do not need to have any human traits. Social robots, on the other hand, are designed to be used in social contexts. So unlike a robot which moves an arm and assembles pieces in a factory, it needs to be interactive, and to communicate somehow with humans.
Furhat is a social robot that communicates with us humans as we do with each other by listening, speaking, expressing emotions and maintaining eye contact. Verbal communication and social interaction are skills we have evolved over thousands of years and as they come so naturally to us, there is little to no learning curve. By communicating with us the way we do with each other, social robots have the ability to connect with us in deeper and more meaningful ways, potentially removing the barriers between humanity and technology.
3) How do you see robots playing an important role in the future of work? Share some examples.
Robots play a massive role in the future of work. It’s the next technological wave, perhaps even an industrial revolution of sorts. In general, we don’t believe that robots will replace human workers in most positions - but we do think that robots will have a huge impact on what types of jobs we choose, and on our lifestyle in general.
4) Tell us more about Tengai and the 'future of job interviews'.
How is Tengai eliminating biases? What are the most common biases that exist and how do they affect the interview process. Please elaborate.
(Answer from Co-founder and Chief Scientist Gabriel Skantze)
When we talk about bias, most people might think about gender and ethnicity, but there are also other less obvious factors, such as height, weight, and age. And even if we talk about and try to become conscious about potential bias, it is very hard to control the unconscious processes that affect our behaviour, which might not only affect the assessment of the candidate, but also how the job interview is conducted, which in turn affects the candidate’s behaviour, and thereby the recruiter’s or hiring manager’s perception of them.
Tengai conducts interviews in a way that is very similar to how a human recruiter would do it, using competency-based questions, such as “tell me about a work situation when you found it difficult to work with colleagues in a team or project, and why did you find it difficult?” The robot will give feedback (such as nodding, smiles and says “mhm”), in order to encourage the candidate to give elaborate answers. If the answer is too vague, the robot might, for example, ask the candidate to give more concrete examples. After the interview, the robot will make a summary of the interview and some objective recommendations for a human to make the decision about the candidate. There is no single magic bullet against bias, and to completely remove bias from the recruitment process, or in other aspects of our lives, might never be possible. But we do think that a robot recruiter might add another level of transparency and consistency to the process.
Unlike a human recruiter, we can control the robot’s behaviour in detail, down to the micro movements in the corner of the mouth. And unlike a human recruiter, we have much better tools for analysing and understanding the rationale for its decisions, which in turn allows us to avoid repeating known biases that are common in recruitment today. We, therefore, think that the development of Tengai is one step towards the understanding and reduction of bias in the recruitment and hiring process.
Tengai has been in testing with TNG over a period of several months, and recently launched for commercial use. The first to use Tengai ‘for real’ is Swedish municipality Upplands-Bro.
5) Do you see humans and robots coexisting in the future? Help us imagine what that could look like?
Of course. Humans and robots already are coexisting.
We think social robots will have the biggest impact in situations where we have already replaced human beings with less intuitive and less social forms of technology such as touchscreens and computers. For example, we are currently trialling Furhat at Frankfurt Airport and Berlin Central Station together with Deutsche Bahn. If you think of most modern airports or train stations, we have replaced customer service staff with interactive kiosks and signs. Social robots that have a face, speak multiple languages or show empathy are a much better solution than the cold, transactional technology in widespread use across the world today.
Another example is recruitment. As you know, together with Swedish recruitment agency TNG, we are developing the world's first unbiased interview robot. The idea here is to create a robot that is less biased than humans in the earlier stages of a recruitment process, where questions are skill and competency based. But it won’t replace a human recruiter; it will coexist, assisting to reduce bias in the early stages of the recruitment process.
Then there's digital healthcare. In December 2018, we trialled Petra, the world's first medical screening robot together with Merck Group. Petra is a social robot that can be deployed in public spaces to help with early diagnosis of diseases such as diabetes, hypothyroidism and alcoholism. Once again, it won’t replace any human worker, but will coexist and improve lives, helping spread awareness of common yet under-diagnosed diseases and letting these people know when they should seek professional healthcare.
These are just a few examples, there are literally thousands of ways in which robots will become an integral part of our society.
6) Most people are scared that robots will take away their jobs. Should they be scared?
Yes and no. Our goal is not to replace human workers with robots, and we don’t see that happening, either. For instance, we know that the world is facing a massive shortage of teachers. We need all the help we can get to optimise our children’s learning. Social robots can assist teachers and improve the learning environment; it’s not about replacing teachers.
But there is a definite shift in the way people work as machines are increasingly doing more automated, repetitive tasks. By letting machines focus on these ‘less desirable’ jobs, we have a wonderful opportunity to usher in a new era of creativity and prosperity where poverty and hunger may become a thing of the past.
Of course, there is also a flip side. A lot of people today find meaning in their work. How do we replace that? Is a world full of aspiring artists or creatives necessarily a good thing? It's worth remembering that human beings lived much simpler lives before the Industrial Revolution. Maybe technology could help us live simpler - and healthier - lives again.
7) Will robots be bosses or employees in the future?
We see robots as tools to empower people. At the end of the day, the role of technology is to serve humanity. In the future, robots should be able to help offload mundane tasks so that we can focus on more meaningful and creative pursuits.
8) What should the code of ethics be if robots are around? Also, would you propose a robot code of conduct for future workplaces?
This question is very broad and doesn’t have one answer. There are different types of robots, intended to be used in different settings, and there is not one code of ethics which can be applied. Ethics are of course a big issue in robotics and AI, but we believe this must be addressed on a more detailed, case-by-case basis. It’s impossible to make a sweeping blanket statement here.
Nisha Ramchandani is the principal author of 'The Future of Work' series.
Published Date: Jun 27, 2019 01:06 PM | Updated Date: Jun 27, 2019 02:06 PM IST