THE BLOG
04/25/2016 04:22 pm ET Updated Apr 25, 2017

The Future of Work: The Co-Evolution of Humans and Robots OR I Heart My Robo-Assistant.

"I'm sitting at the kitchen table sipping my coffee and reading the paper in my apartment. It's a lazy Saturday. My 'bot, Bob, took the dogs for an early morning walk, made my coffee, retrieved my paper from the mail box and put away the dishes that he cleaned after dinner last night. After filing this week's work papers and giving me a list of movies and plays I might like to see this week, he will put wash and put away my clothes from yesterday."

Who wouldn't want that, right?! When it comes to robots, there are actually all kinds of things that we could be very happy for them to do for us such as: menial and boring tasks; projects that are repetitive or require more strength; and simple research. Having robo-support to do these would free us up to focus on things we care about. There are also important tasks that we feel they are likely capable of - like rescuing someone from a burning building. Recently-publicized research from the Georgia Tech Research Institute confirmed that the majority of us quickly forget our angst and fear and 'trust' robots to take care of certain critical tasks should the urgent need suddenly arise.

I interviewed SAP's Kai Goerlich, who is their Thought Leadership IoT and Digital Futurist, to discover what the future might hold. I was intrigued by his positive perspective on the potential co-evolution of humans and robots - independently-mobile, human-featured computer-driven machines - over the next decade and more. However, a harmonious future co-existence does require our proactive direction and involvement.

First of all, why do we make robots two-legged and human-featured, since it is their very resemblance to us that awakens our concerns?! Then, it's the extreme possibilities - having our cyborg assistant 'turn Terminator' on us - that are lurking in the back of our minds. However, are our fears of robot armies taking over our jobs or 'going rogue' unjustified?

Goerlich pointed out the reality that wide-spread adoption is often much slower that we anticipate - for example, RFID took 20 years to catch on widely - and even more so with physical assets. Extrapolating from BCG's figures of spending on robotics, SAP predicts that industrial robots (used in manufacturing) will see strong adoption starting in 2020, which will be bypassed in 2025 by the exponential growth of commercial robots (encompassing professional cleaning robots and personal robots). He, therefore, believes we should have time to transition and leverage robots to support, rather then take away, many jobs. The key is IF it is a managed evolution.

Taiwanese company, FoxConn, has almost fully-automated production lines...and this is where robots could disrupt the current landscape. If robots are leveraged primarily to drive production costs down, then job losses could be significant. The National Association of Manufacturers counts over 12 million manufacturing workers, or 9% of the U.S. population, as well as another 18.5 million jobs that are supported by manufacturing.

Goerlich noted that the U.S. middle class was built on production and so he fears automated mass production could have a devastating impact on employment and, consequently, society as well. He suggests that, instead, we should focus on automation to enhance quality - such as product quality through increased accuracy, as well as reducing risks. If robots are involved in more co-operational type of roles and projects, they will replace certain functions rather than jobs.

In these type of working combinations, we can also leverage what we, as humans, do best. Despite the great leaps forward for artificial intelligence in recent years and months, including the much-publicized victory of computer AlphaGo in the artful strategy game of Go, Goerlich reminds us that humans are the inventors.

We are non-sequential, 'out-of-the-box' thinkers in ways that, at least for now, robots are not. They follow the defined, sequential, linear dimensions of their programming. Humans have 'inspiration" and gut feelings about ideas and directions that can lead to non-incremental, unforeseeable change. Goerlich described the essence of our genius using the analogy of a jazz band, where the musicians gather around a creative moment and respond to the imaginative, and spontaneous, energy of each artist's melody.

Meantime, robots not only need written 'music', they need rules too. As robots become more capable, and thoughtful (literally), being able to move and act independently, they will need laws to govern their behavior. The more independent they become, the greater the urgency to get policies and procedures in place, particularly in relation to ethical aspects to ensure they are programmed to 'understand', adjust and act appropriately. Bugs and software flaws are par for the course in robots and people alike. We just need to know what to do when, not if, 'rogue' situations occur and have already decided what consequences, including penalties, apply.

Listening to Goerlich contrasting and comparing humans and robots, it seems clear that this is a seminal moment in our evolution. It's partly about playing Robo-Darwin and being purposeful about where and how we want to develop and utilize our emerging mechanical brethren, and Goerlich has some interesting suggestions spanning a variety of robot species.

In parallel, perhaps ironically, robots are helping us work out what it really means to be human. We need to recognize, embrace and nurture the essence of these characteristics - that truly differentiate us from each other and from robots, as clever as we might be able to make them. It's time to move on from the rigid, machine-like types of jobs that the Industrial Age confined us to and cultivate uniquely-human roles and opportunities for ourselves. Then, the less we will have to fear, and the more we will have to benefit, from the advent of robots...at our kitchen table, in our offices and anywhere else.

Sophie is the Workforce Innovation Specialist at Flexcel Network, helping companies transition to very new ways of working, dealing with issues such as workplace flexibility, talent management, Millennial demands and new employee career planning needs. She speaks frequently to corporate and professional audiences about Future of Work issues. Sophie is also President of the NYC chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners.