When Harvard University scientists said a couple of weeks ago that they had created robots that can work together in large numbers without guidance toward a common goal, I was surprised by the lack of reaction from doomsayers warning about a robotic apocalypse.
Sure, these quarter-sized robots aren't very deep thinkers – they just swarm into simple shapes – but it's easy to see how they could evolve to build greater things, including other robots.
In this continuing dialogue about whether the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) and automation will help or hurt the work force, I've always been of the opinion that technical advancement is good, and creates new opportunities, even if it kills off existing ones. Ten years ago, I wouldn't have known what an app developer was and today I employ them.
Now, I eagerly look out for signs of changes to come. Earlier this summer, I watched an investor pitch by a female entrepreneur who was designing a robot that does manicures. I imagined not only the nail equivalent of a Nespresso machine, with varnish pods instead of single-serve coffee containers – which was the picture this entrepreneur painted – but beyond that to a robot that can design manicures with incredible precision, suggesting colours and discussing the latest, vapid celebrity news – a robotic aesthetician with artificial intelligence.
Unfortunately, the robotic manicurist has yet to enter the prototype phase, but count me among those who would put up money for its development if it ever appears on crowdfunding site Indiegogo. It plays into my long-standing fantasy to automate all low-value, time-wasting tasks with not only machine precision but also with personality. I blame The Jetsons – the futuristic 1960s cartoon I loved watching in reruns as a kid in the early '80s – and their robot maid, Rosie. It's 30 years later, but I still want a Rosie and I'm surprised that I don't have one.
I may not have to wait much longer. One recent study by business research firm Whale Path showed that there are now over one million industrial robots in use worldwide, quickly replacing jobs that are "boring, dirty or dangerous," Whale Path co-founder Colin Gu said.
This robotic work force strikes fear in many. In a recent study by the Pew Research Center, a Washington-based think tank, a little over half (52 per cent) of the experts polled said that the rise of automation would create more jobs than it destroys. Meanwhile, the other half, (48 per cent) envision a not-so-distant future where robots have displaced a significant number of blue- and white-collar workers.
Jerry Michalski, founder of Rex, a San Francisco think tank, likens the move toward automation to Voldemort, the evil wizard in Harry Potter, calling it "the terrifying force nobody is willing to name."
But what if these advances in technology serve to improve human leadership rather than replace it? It's already happening. The University of Southern California's Institute for Creative Technologies uses AI to provide junior leaders in the military with a practice environment to improve their interpersonal communication skills, explained Randall Hill, the institute's executive director and a research professor of computer science.
Mr. Hill expects that in the next 10 years, it will be much more common for managers to have access to AI-based tools to help develop stronger leaders.
That might include practise in managing an employee who may be experiencing personal issues or rehearsing ahead of complex negotiations. Artificial intelligence will also allow companies to play "what-if scenarios" when making a decision, to predict employee and market reaction. These AI-based systems, Mr. Hill explained, will not only understand natural language but also body language, interpreting emotion. Imagine Siri, the voice in your iPhone, responding to your body language and reacting to your jokes.
Will greater interaction between humans and virtual humans improve business leadership? "Absolutely," Mr. Hill said.
"Virtual humans are analogous to flight simulators – just as a pilot can practise flying different types of aircraft in a variety of scenarios, a virtual human can provide the ability to practise high-stakes personal interactions in a low-risk environment, where mistakes can be transformed into lessons learned through practise, feedback and automated tutoring," he said.
Not everyone is convinced. Paul Boston, president of Toronto-based training company Actus Performance Inc., said he has seen AI used in health care settings to treat patients in remote locations and sees the trend evolving to other industries, but is not yet convinced it will enhance white-collar roles in the next few years. "People still require a live, real person to lead and inspire them," he said.
Ultimately, we want to develop human leaders who can manage the robot swarms into creating more not only more efficient workplaces but workers. And ideally generate enough wealth to allow for frivolous purchases, like a manicure robot.
Leah Eichler is founder and CEO of r/ally, a mobile collaboration platform for enterprises.