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Rage against the AI machine: What Frankenstein’s monster tells us about the dangers of an intelligent robot-augmented workforce

In Mary Shelley’s famous novel, Dr Frankenstein creates intelligent life from inanimate matter. The monster, despite looking fearsome, is actually sensitive and emotional, and tries to fit in to society. However, he is violently rejected because people are afraid of him. This tragic story ends with the deaths of numerous characters and the devastated monster running away, never to be seen again.

Back in the real world, from recent news stories it seems a new monster has emerged – one which appears poised to be used as a weapon by the military and as a job thief by corporations. This new monster is artificial intelligence.

Last year, PA conducted a survey to gauge people’s feelings about our increasingly automated world. We discovered that most people were comfortable with using intelligent robots in manual work (90% would trust a robot to drive their child to school). But they were uncomfortable with AI’s increasing capability in leveraging emotions, values and intuition – what we arguably prize as uniquely human qualities.

Indeed, AI is fast becoming a part of our daily reality and is predicted to become commonplace in business by the end of the decade. But despite fears of AI annihilating our livelihoods (around 50% of jobs are predicted to go in the next few years) we are seeing the development of a more positive application of AI at work: one of harmonious collaboration between intelligent robots and humans. Earlier this year, my colleague Rob Gear, wrote an intriguing piece on artificial intelligence (The robots are coming), in which he highlighted this collaborative potential. At Carnegie Mellon, for example:

“…a robot and an engineer partner built a space frame in 10 hours for $1,150. A group of human experts built the same frame in 10 hours at a cost $7,075.”

Essentially, humans set the goals, while robots do the routine work – thus saving resources and increasing productivity. An intelligent, robot-assisted workforce can also extend careers. In Germany, the pension age increased from 65 to 67, so BMW introduced AI robots to support factory workers in the (literal) heavy lifting, enabling them to work for longer. AI is also starting to feature management. A Japanese venture capital firm, for example, recently nominated an AI board member due to its superhuman ability to predict market trends.

Nevertheless, as Shelley’s cautionary tale warns, if leaders are considering investing in an intelligent robot-augmented workforce, they need to be aware of the emotional impact this may have on human workers. And we’re not talking anger from being replaced by machines, as with the loom workers in early nineteenth century Britain. We’re talking about the violent, fear-driven response akin to that shown to Frankenstein’s monster when it tried to assimilate itself into society – which is not just a future concern, but is already in evidence today. For example, a US company recently invented a little hitchhiking robot, as part of an experiment to study the limits of human kindness and the current state of artificial intelligence. Within a few days, it was cruelly beheaded by a human in an unprovoked attack. In a similar tale, a customer-welcoming AI robot in a Japanese shopping mall was persistently attacked by children, so has had to be reprogrammed to not approach anyone under 137cm high.

So, what can leaders do in advance to prevent or at least limit the Frankenstein’s monster effect?

  • Identify how an intelligent robot-assisted workforce could benefit the business and build an AI-human collaboration strategy with clearly defined roles, responsibilities and governance structures
  • Thoroughly train staff in unconscious bias (towards robots)
  • Consider and clearly articulate to human staff the ‘rights’ of AI-enabled robots
  • Set clear goals and reward human workers’ contributions to collaborative efforts with robots
  • Establish robust disciplinary measures to ensure human behaviour towards intelligent robots is properly managed.

Mary Shelley painted a pessimistic view of humanity in its poor treatment of Dr Frankenstein’s creature. However, while early evidence points to extreme reactions to the unfamiliarity of intelligent robots, if properly prepared for and managed in the workplace, robot-human collaboration has enormous potential for the future.

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