RPA has gained momentum and mainstream deployment over the last 2 years. As the worlds of RPA, AI and cognitive machine learning technologies collide – putting robotics into the real-world hands of businesses leaders – we are faced with a new reality full of questions.

Dilemmas that remain unanswered have led to an avalanche of discussions and debates that have moved from hypothetical to imminent for technology innovators everywhere – most especially here in the Silicon Valley. For example: “whom should the self-driving car choose to save in the event of an imminent accident, the pedestrian or the passenger in the car?”

At the same time, business leadership has been forced to take part in a slightly different conversation. The virtual replacement of certain human work raises ethical dilemmas on how to deal with human dignity and respect, human jobs, and well, human-ness. How do we succeed in this transition? How do we embrace the audacity of bots being so human?

  Part I: How do we manage our human workforce in transition alongside our digital workforce?

Part II: How do we start the dialog on leadership and ethics in the era of the bots and how do we create a set of governing rules for them?

There are three areas that leadership needs to address to transition to a human + digital workforce:

  1. The changing job market
  2. Keeping the focus on the human contribution
  3. The continuity of progress: Remember it’s the future we work towards

Changing Job Market

The most imperative and talked about threat is that of job loss. If bots are able to do what humans do with near-perfect consistency, without errors or downtime, why would businesses continue to hire humans or place value on human contributions?

Technology has always heralded both job loss and job creation. The invention of the wheel, steam engines, type writers, electricity and cars redefined jobs and workers had to be re-skilled. One of the challenges with the advent of the personal computer was “what would people do with their time?” We now live with the consequences of that – people found so many new things they could accomplish that they never could before with that increased productivity. It translated to more human working hours to cope with the increased demand for goods and services. Robotic automation promises to be no different. Several jobs of today – especially the most repetitive of them – will become obsolete. New industries with new jobs will take their place.

Yet the prevailing fears pertaining to embracing software robots are deeper still because robots promise to self-learn, perform some cognitive functions and think, the most human of skills.

Martin Ford in his book “Rise of the Robots” argues that increases in productivity will stop translating into increased wages. He cites income inequality, sinking wages, and disappearing purchasing power as a result of AI taking over many mainstream jobs.

Automation technology will increase individual and collective productivity, enabling the workforce to create new personalized offerings and delivery models and better customer experiences. This will help in creating augmented living experiences, more integrated services, and so forth.  This whole eco-system will in turn help create new jobs with an increased demand for skilled workers, which in turn, will demand an increased premium in wages.

Leaders and users of this new digital workforce must remember that although machine learning will enable some level of cognitive thought, the complexity of the human brain cannot be undermined nor under-estimated. The human brain is not nearly 100% logical, it is influenced by ‘human traits’ like empathy, envy, joy, sadness and a myriad of other emotions that directly affect our logical thought processes. So yes, the robot will be able to make logical choices on tasks they are trained for – mainly in back and front office tasks – but that’s a far cry from replacing human jobs and skills in their entirety.

Another important consequence of this productivity increase is augmentation: humans will be able to provide more specialized services as their own skill sets will be augmented by both the productivity as well as the knowledge and analytics that the bots will bring to them. This will translate to an increase in reach of specialized services into our society. As an example: high school graduates with a bot-augmented knowledge cache will be able to provide more specialized city services or pharmacy dispensation than before. This will increase the reach of both city services as well as pharmacies.

Keeping the focus on the human contribution

We lead our teams to deliver on our commitments. In our quest for “robotics” are we devaluing the work that a human does?  Will we lose our morality and respect for fellow humans? The audacity of bots is that they can outperform humans in specific tasks. After all, if a robot can do it better, why do I need the human workforce?

Leaders of this new amalgamated digital and human workforce must remember the differing strengths and weaknesses of both sets of workers, while especially focusing on the power of the human. Like we do with our current working teams, the digital and human teams will each have their own “super-powers,” and like we require our successful leaders to do today, leaders of this human-bot workforce must be able to set every team up for success.

Humans use an integrated system of complex business and societal rules, cognitive and heuristics to come up with solutions to a problem.

Bots on the other hand use business rules with pattern learning recognition to enable a certain level of cognitive solutions.

Leadership will be required to rethink, regroup and re-purpose resources at their disposal to take up this challenge and enable every human employee to be ”enabled” by their digital workforce counterpart.

For example: with pattern learning, bots are great at error-reduction, and as a consequence, can outperform on large and complex data verifications. Humans, on the other hand, are able to take that information and analysis, enhance it further to predict and deal with business complexity. Humans are skilled and equipped to thrive in that atmosphere.

Simply put, enabling human leaders with bot-driven data and cognitive analytics sets them up to solve even more complex issues and innovate with more creative solutions.

 Remember it’s the future we work towards

Whether it is space exploration, disease, poverty or hunger annihilation, virtual reality entertainment or simply way more personalized customer service at your local bank, businesses work towards providing something different, greater, more humane and infinitely better for our human species. We can achieve this only if we continue to evolve the way we work. Enabling ourselves with robots is one way to do more. As witnessed through our industrial revolutions, innovation and business continuity will drive a lifestyle and societal uplift.

Leaders of the next generation must focus on this goal and enable their businesses to take advantage of and leverage both their human and digital workforces. The future of society requires our commitment to a better world utilizing all our creations, including bots.

Bots have limitations, even as they enable us through this next phase of human progress. Bots need humans – they rely on humans.  A cognitive bot, no matter the technology, may be able to give you an answer to a question using the data and rules it has, but will fall short of ‘why’ the rule was followed. Going back to our initial problem of the self-driving car – the bot will not be able to justify why it chose the passenger over the pedestrian. This responsibility is and will always be ours.

As businesses embrace the audacity of bots to further human progress and create the next generation of human services, products and capabilities, leaders must address job transitions with reskilling, focus on enabling their human workforce to reach greater heights, and accept the changing responsibilities that heralds in progress. We must continue doing what we do so well – lead.

Stay tuned for part II in the series on the ethics of embracing bot audacity and the leadership that will be required to lead this human and bot combined workforce.