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Working with robots: Get used to it

Tom Davenport doesn’t make a ringing endorsement for robots in the workplace.

The renowned analytics and knowledge management scholar used a trio of unflattering adjectives to describe the machines: snobbish, egotistical, hegemonic.

But you’d better get used to them, because you soon may be sharing a cube with one.

“Increasingly, I think we need to think about computers as co-workers if we’re going to be successful in our careers,” Davenport said at the recent 2016 MIT Sloan CIO Symposium. He spoke on a panel about the skills people need to thrive in a digital future.

Human-robot relations

Working with robots won’t be easy for everyone. Robots are smart, Davenport said, and they get smarter faster than you do. They’ll snub you if you don’t know your work cold, because “they only want to work with experts.”

And they insist that you work with them if you want to do your own work well. So people should be keenly aware of what they’re good at and not good at – as you would around co-workers, Davenport said. If the robot is falling short, step in and do the job right. Or if you are, say, a hedge fund manager, you might want to be the boss.

“All the trades in the hedge funds are typically done by a computer, but somebody’s looking at the entire portfolio,” Davenport said. He followed with a quip: “I think that’s worked out fairly well for hedge fund managers.”

They also keep doing things only human beings did before. They’re already doing business process outsourcing work and are now going after jobs held by doctors, lawyers and journalists.

Working with robots: A primer

But Davenport isn’t one of the pessimists who think robots will snatch 50% of jobs from American hands anytime soon. No one knows exactly how many  jobs will be lost to machines, he said; his guess is 10% to 20% over the next 10 to 20 years. One of their more appealing attributes is they’re slow to take over.

“There were in 1980, 500,000 bank tellers in the United States,” Davenport said. “In 2016 there are roughly 500,000 bank tellers in the United States — despite ATMs and online banking and so on.”

So to stay relevant while working with robots, human beings will have to understand the business and communicate effectively — “with carbon-based lifeforms as opposed to silicon-based lifeforms.” They should have some grasp of technical topics, too, such as programming.

“Some quantitative, some computational and some business and communication,” Davenport said, “I think that’s still going to be a very important combination of skills over the foreseeable future.” No doubt, in workplaces with or without robots.