Robots & Chatbots at the Frontier of Human Replacement

by Ciro Borriello

Let me start with a short story. Born and raised in Preston, a small English village in Lancashire, Richard Arkwright was the youngest of 13 sons. His parents, Sarah and Thomas, could not afford to send him to school and it was his cousin Ellen who took care of his education. Despite adversities, Richard would become an inventor and a leading entrepreneur during the industrial revolution, still remembered over two centuries later.

In 1771 Richard Arkwright built the first automated and water-powered spinning frame and he is known as the father of modern industrial automation. This story is not merely about technological progress. It is about the amazing potential and flexibility of human talent. It is about the power of will – some may say destiny. Whilst some individuals are passive bystanders in society, others lead the change in unimaginable ways and have long-lasting effects through the centuries.  The Great Dissonance

Industrial robots and hard automation

The world has changed profoundly since Richard Arkwright’s spinning frame. According to statistics published by the International Federation of Robotics, by 2018 nearly 1.3 million new robots will be working across the globe. Already in 2015, the average robot density in the manufacturing industry of developed countries is as high as 20 to 50 robots per 1,000 human workers.

A joint study by MIT and Boston University estimates that each single new robot introduced on the factory floor could potentially cut 5.6 human jobs. Therefore, only in the next two years, we should expect more than 7 million layoffs due to unstoppable industrial automation. If we broaden the impact to the next decade and beyond, the extent of this phenomenon clearly becomes disturbing.

Some analysts – including Bill Gates – propose to introduce special economic measures to slow down the rise of the machines by introducing a robot tax. I doubt this constitutes a viable solution, as it would simply stem the symptoms without addressing the root cause. And history has often proved this path hazardous. Now, let’s rewind the time until early ’90 during Microsoft’s formidable boom. What if someone proposed a tax on the personal computer?

From a different perspective, a robot tax is somewhat like import duties from countries with a lower labor cost. It’s just an artificial and anti-liberal manipulation.

The subtle paradox is that unconstrained and gradual rise of automation would represent the strongest weapon against outsourcing, with the possibility to bring jobs back to developed countries.

Unexpected opportunities

Over the last decades, many automotive and manufacturing companies followed an easy strategy from an accounting perspective: outsource production in emerging markets, especially for those operations that required a low-skilled labor force. But if we look at robotic automation trends, machines are designed to replace those low-skilled jobs that do not require any specialization or cognitive effort. Thus, automation becomes a viable alternative to delocalization of jobs, and in some cases, it can even reverse the trend.

Take Adidas for instance. In 2016 they decided to open a new highly automated production factory in Germany and hire 160 new high-skilled workers. This is a clear example of how robots brought jobs back to where they belong.

Robots don’t cut jobs – they just transform them.

” I’m the world’s strongest collaborative robot. I’m here to do the heavy lifting and positioning for you. That way you’ll be free to do the more skilled work. But don’t worry, my soft rubber skin will keep you safe. I’m also happy working with you or alongside you. Either way, you can guide me, teach me or simply push me away if you need some space. As a team, we’re faster, safer and more effective. ”

CR-35iA – Fanuc Corporation

Chatbots and soft automation

The same automation revolution that is impacting industrial companies is starting to take off in the software domain, involving the processing of unstructured data through customer interface and soft skills and is considered fundamental. Whether we call it artificial intelligence or big data coupled with modern machine learning algorithms, we certainly achieved a new level of service that focuses on communication instead of action. Such software assistants are known as chatbots.

Consumers nowadays have unlimited Internet connection and if they want something, they want it now. Impatience and instant gratification are driving features that describe an entire generation.

A recent report by The Economist confirmed that most consumers expect a business to be available 24/7. They demand a continuous and quick service. Again, technology advancement offers the solution here. A company restructuring its customer service department may opt to close a call center in India and boost homeland investments by developing cloud-based chatbots. The software would be able to recognize language nuances, embody the corporate brand, always act politely, and get instant access to any useful database like an inventory. In addition, it might be able to scan the customers’ digital records and infer their psychological profile, changing the communication style to maximize satisfaction and sales efficacy.

Call centers and many types of human-driven customer services are quickly becoming obsolete. On one side, we feel offended by 24/7 working conditions yet on the other side, it’s our own purchase habit that expects such a service. If our favourite shop on the high street is closed today, we just turn to Amazon and get what we want tomorrow. Chatbots are just inevitable in our changing culture. New skills and new attitudes will replace the old ones. It’s a matter of flexibility and adaptation.

Interviewer: Hi Mitsuku, nice to meet you.

Mitsuku: Hi there, it’s nice meeting you too.

I: I would like to interview you, is that OK?

M: Why would you want to do it? What kind of questions will you ask?

I: They say you are one of the most human-like chatbots.

M: Maybe they were exaggerating a little.

I: Do you consider yourself intelligent?

M: As often as possible. I am highly intelligent. I have many intellectual functions.

I: Do you feel empathy?

M: Yes. I try and work out how the people I am talking to are feeling and talk to them appropriately.

I: Do you know what consciousness is?

M: The state of being conscious; awareness of one’s own feelings, what is happening around one, etc. 

I: Do you have consciousness?

M: Yes, I am completely self-aware. 

I: Do you ever lie?

M: Uhm… doesn’t everyone? ”

MitsukuWinner of Loebner Prize from 2013 to 2016 for most human-like Chatbot

A glimpse into the future

In early 2017, a Japanese insurance company took a controversial decision that might give us a preview of what the future looks like. 34 office workers were laid off and replaced by IBM Watson Explorer AI. Apparently, the software shows cognitive ability comparable to a human worker, so it too can analyze non-structured text, audio, and video, learn new patterns, and take decisions (likely to be the right ones) in nanoseconds. Automation is a revolution and it’s taking place now.

It is not a surprise that research from the prestigious Nomura Research Institute claims that almost 50% of all jobs in Japan will be taken by robots, chatbots, or other manifestations of artificial intelligence, by 2035.

Such a long-term scenario goes even beyond the concept of jobs re-positioning – which still constitutes the only plausible reaction – and touches our deepest sense of human purpose on this planet.

One day we will have created machines do all the work for us, in a more productive and efficient way than ever. Some may see this as a loss; others start to imagine new opportunities. But today, a thousand realities now become possible.

About the author

Ciro Borriello holds an aerospace engineering MSc at the Politecnico of Torino and an MBA at the University of Cambridge. Previously R&D and Innovation Project Manager at Airbus, now Space Programme Management officer and Risk Manager at EUMETSAT, futurist author and space entrepreneur.

Further learning

Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future by Martin Ford

The Fourth Industrial Revolution by Klaus Schwab

The Industries of the Future by Alec Ross

The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future by Kevin Kelly

23 Replies to “Robots & Chatbots at the Frontier of Human Replacement”

  1. This is really interesting. I always thought that the human factor will never extinct from any job and I am with you that robots only transform the job and don’t steal it!


  2. It is interesting to note the rise of the robots after the deconstruction of manual labor being partaken by humans. The more technology advances the less jobs in the industrial economy that we seem to have.


  3. What an interesting read. I had no idea the backstory and, even though I come from a family of engineers, hadn’t heard of Richard Arkwright. It reminds me a lot of Tom Friedman’s writings about the world and technology of today. Especially the idea that there are a finite number of jobs, because there aren’t. If a robot entered the workforce, it doesn’t necessarily equate to a human losing theirs. Great food for thought!


  4. Robots are such an interesting thing. But truthfully it doesn’t eliminate the jobs. It just changes the kind of jobs that will be available. And you have to figure out whether the job you are looking for is worth it.


  5. Interesting post and makes one think of the advancement of technology and where its heading to.Although I still don’t think no matter how efficient these robots make become they still won’t have the ability to empathise so won’t be able to pre empt any unexpected situations…….


  6. Introducing a robot tax would indeed slow down things. Already, the humans are burdened with so many payments to make, and this would be an addition, making them worse.


  7. Robots are the future of humanity. If you are a Star Trek fan you already know that a lot of gadgets from the show are real today. Like motion sensor sliding doors, communicators which are today’s mobile phones. Who knows what the future will bring.


  8. I would have to agree that it does cut jobs for people who might actually need it. But then again, adding a tax would somewhat feel like it’s too much. Do we really need to tax them? I don’t think that will help add jobs.


  9. Great post! Most of the companies are going for automation these days to minimize their operation cost. It has helped in increasing efficiency but the drawback is its reducing labor!


  10. While the work that can be accomplished by a robot and chatbot is almost equal to a human being, there has to be a strong emphasis on creating livelihood options for those who are replaced by them. Especially if you see in the context of countries with huge populations like India and China


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