Innovation

Future jobs: How humans and robots will complement each other

We often hear of automation replacing workers, but that's only part of the story. Here's how machines can work with humans, or free them up for higher-level tasks.

Image: iStockphoto.com/Issam Khriji

Across the world, robots have replaced workers in factories, taken on the role of customer service agents in call centers, and, in the near future, will be driving our cars. But while factory workers, customer service specialists, and taxi drivers may have a lot to worry about in the new age of automation and AI, there's reason for hope: Robots often need humans to work with them. TechRepublic talked to experts in robotics, AI, and finance to learn more about how humans and robots will complement each other in future jobs.

Assisting robots at their jobs

It's clear that robots are still not good at everything—the common joke among roboticists is that if you want to stop a robot takeover, all you have to do is close a door (they can't grip door handles yet). So Joe Jones, founder of Harvest Automation (and original Roomba inventor), told TechRepublic that human-robot collaboration "makes designing the robot easier."

"The model for industrial robots has been that they are big and dangerous and must be kept behind a fence, away from people," said Jones. "This means the robot must be entirely autonomous. But, people and robots have different strengths—if the robot must do the whole job itself, it may have to perform functions that robots aren't especially good at."

SEE: Research: 63% say business will benefit from AI

One primary place for robots, warehouses, is "rather challenging," said Jones. For example, one problem is picking non-rigid objects through a hole cut in a cardboard box. "One good solution to this problem might be to let people identify and manipulate, and have the robot drive around the warehouse carrying totes and consolidating the items picked for each order," said Jones. "We implemented this example when Harvest became interested in warehouse robots, and it seems to have a lot of merit."

Freeing up humans for higher-level tasks

Steve Palomino, director of financial transformation at Redwood Software, which provides enterprise robotic process automation, sees the potential for a lot of new jobs in finance. "[Of] all the technological advances, we haven't had a disruption in accounting," said Palomino.

"How humans and robots work together is that robots can take over mundane tasks, like account balances," said Palomino. "Right now, I have to look at your checking account, and compare it to your QuickBooks account and your Excel spreadsheet, and make sure they're equal."

SEE: How will AI impact jobs? High-powered panel tackles the big question

For a machine, it's a much easier task. "If you take a large corporation, of between 2000-8000 accounts, you have hordes of humans spending hours in Excel looking back and forth trying to find variance," he said. "This will free humans to do important things that they went to college for—complex accounting."

Another reason that robots and workers can work together? Toby Walsh, professor of AI at The University of New South Wales said that robots can help humans "play to our strengths."

See: The 7 biggest myths about artificial intelligence

"Amplifying intelligence is a great way for AI to help us rather than replace us," he said. "So computers should bring to the table their memory and their brute force ability to search through many possibilities. And we should bring to the table our creativity, our emotional intelligence, and our ability to cope with new and unplanned situations."

Walsh sees this happening already. "Computers are helping mathematicians explore new areas of maths, finding patterns that we humans can then prove," said Walsh. This was "witnessed with the recent discovery about the non-randomness of the last digits of pi. In quantum physics, there was a nice example recently of a computer being used to propose experiments to test quantum mechanics," he said.

These are just a few of the ways that humans and robots may work together in the future—it is not comprehensive. Know of more ways that this is happening, or will happen? Let us know in the comment section.

The 3 big takeaways for TechRepublic readers

  1. Robots still rely on humans for assistance in factories and other settings, and coordination with workers is crucial to the success of many operations. While some workers will likely see their jobs wholly replaced, many will see their work improved by robots.
  2. Robots can help companies improve efficiency by reducing mundane tasks.
  3. With automation, workers will likely be freed up for higher-level, complex problem-solving. Many discoveries could be a result of the newfound time and space for intellectual thought.

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About

Hope Reese is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers the intersection of technology and society, examining the people and ideas that transform how we live today.

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