Humans, robots and the future of work

We've pinned our hopes for the future on them, but also regard them with suspicion: Robots will soon be part of our daily lives.

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They’re expected to revolutionize the current job market and replace many human skills. The prospect of competing with them has people worried. But how close do our mystical, utopian and dystopian predictions come to the truth?
Martina Mara, Professor of Robopsychology at Johannes Kepler University Linz (JKU), and Roland Haring, Director at the Ars Electronica Futurelab, talk about humans, robots, and the future of work.

What will it be like to work with robots? What will robots mean for the future of work?

Martina Mara: I think we should ask those questions in a completely different way: What do we want the future of work to look like? How do we want robots to change our lives? New technologies such as robots or artificial intelligence (AI) are developed by people. They don’t just fall from the sky. In this respect, I would argue that we should change our perspective and actively seek out visions of the future we want. This requires a broader, more democratic discourse. We must try to expand the discourse to involve more people. That’s a very important process that should become more established. Ars Electronica has been working on it for a long time by consulting many different target groups on questions about shaping the future. At JKU, we’re trying to do the same.
From a humanistic perspective, it would be nice if work in the future were oriented more toward what people are really good at and what they really enjoy doing. One could argue that people are very different. But activities that are highly repetitive or very monotonous or even dangerous, for example, often don’t give people much pleasure. And those happen to be the tasks that robots can perform very well.
They can do the same work 24/7 without getting tired. Compared to humans, robots specialize in highly specific activities and need clearly structured tasks. On the other hand, they’re not very good at generalizing and contextualizing. When it comes to thinking beyond a specific context and applying what they’ve learned to other areas, humans will continue to be superior to robots for a very long time.
In that respect, it’s a wonderful match. If we want to design a working world of the future that places greater emphasis on human needs, that’s actually a good deal.

“I advocate for dismantling the widespread competitive image of humans versus machines and seeing robots more as potentially useful tools. We should develop visions of the future that are collaborative and complementary.” – Martina Mara, Professor of Robopsychology at Johannes Kepler University Linz (JKU)

Roland Haring: That’s right. Categorically transferring jobs to a robot won’t work in most sectors. It works in industry, where monotonous, repetitive processes can already replace human labor well. But differentiated processes are much harder to automate. So the robots’ job will never be to completely replace humans.
That’s also the idea behind the collaborative robot. We use it for our joint research project CoBot Studio, which investigates new methods for science and how to optimize collaboration between humans and robots.
These collaborative systems are about successful cooperation between humans and machines, where the greatest potential will lie in the future: The partners should be able to fulfill complex tasks efficiently – and above all jointly. That’s a technically feasible goal. If robots are asked to perform tasks that are too complex, tasks they’re not designed for, they’ll be hopelessly overtaxed.

“So completely transferring human activities to robots simply won’t work.” – Roland Haring, Director in the Ars Electronica Futurelab

It’s increasingly becoming clear that technology will not replace humans. So either/or thinking is fundamentally wrong. Developments in the field of artificial intelligence are a good example of this today: AI is already serving as a kind of assistant to the human workforce in many areas. It can increase productivity enormously and take over many time-consuming preparatory tasks. But it’s still managed and supervised by human experts. So the fact that artificial intelligence also makes the odd mistake is not a big problem. It supports, filters out and prepares. There are many areas in which digitization and automation can increase efficiency enormously. Humans – supported by AI – can then concentrate on their actual, much more complex qualifications. In fact, wherever big data plays a crucial role, AI is urgently needed. The more data a system has to process, the better an AI can perform compared to its human supervisor.

Safety concerns and cost-effectiveness also put strict limits on the scenarios in which robots are used. From a purely technical point of view, machines could be developed that can perform more complex tasks. But building a robot like that is so complicated and expensive that human labor will remain irreplaceable for a very long time simply because of its economic advantages. We have to take those factors into account when making predictions.
Each industry will develop separate areas of activity to some extent. Work will be divided into different sectors: those that can be supported or taken over by robotics and artificial intelligence, and those that will remain the preserve of humans in the future.

That sounds very positive. So why is there so much skepticism about automation and digitization in the workplace?

Martina Mara: There’s a lot of mystification of robotics and AI out there. The whole field of future technologies – and robotics and artificial intelligence are often synonymous with that – is something many people view as “rocket science.” When they think of a robot, the image they have is of a kind of humanoid wizard machine. And it’s no wonder, because those images are frequently conveyed in the media. Rarely is it explained what these technologies really are, what they’re good at and what they’re not good at.

“Robots are not magic machines that learn completely independently. They are programmed by people and fed with data.” – Martina Mara

To engage more people and enable democratic discourse, we need to provide basic knowledge about these new technologies to a broad public and ensure more “AI literacy” in society.
At the moment, the topic always fluctuates somewhere between mysticism, utopia and dystopia. On the one hand, there are “Terminator” and doomsday fantasies, and on the other hand, the image of the robot that solves all of humanity’s problems – all combined with science fiction visions.

But mysticism and dystopia lead many people to avoidance behavior and fear of contact. What we need is a critical-constructive approach and a willingness to deal with the topic in the general public. It doesn’t matter whether I’m a university researcher or I run a craft business: Future technologies – machine learning, artificial intelligence and robotics – need a diverse level of reflection. Teaching basic skills and knowledge is very important in this context.
Artificial intelligence already plays an important role in everyday life – but few people are really aware of it. Physical robots are still less important in everyday life than AI.
There are certainly areas of work where robots – including collaborative robots – will become more prevalent in the near future. Mobile robots will be used more frequently in transportation, to bring bed linen from point A to point B in hospitals or perhaps even to take over messenger services.

In this respect, it would be naïve to assume that no occupational fields will be replaced by new technologies – even if new jobs are added at the same time. We have to be honest about that. Young people need to be given specific information about which jobs in which sectors could be taken over by machines in the foreseeable future. But there are also many areas that are perfectly suited for collaboration with robots. In those areas, it’s important to reduce common prejudices and concerns in society by providing information and opportunities to interact with future technologies.

Roland Haring: Robots that vacuum our houses or mow our lawns are already part of our everyday lives. They’re a great example of how robots can handle very clearly defined tasks efficiently. What they still largely lack, however, is any form of interaction or communication with their environment. They just focus on their task and, at most, they can avoid obstacles. This will increasingly change as new forms of sensor technology improve robots’ ability to interact.

“The whole topic of mobility, transport and logistics, for example, offers great potential for robotics. Autonomous vehicles, which, after all, also count as robotic systems, are already having a major impact on our everyday lives – often without us being aware of it.” – Roland Haring

Amazon is currently investing in the full automation of their warehouses. Huge progress is being made in this area. In principle, the company is reducing its workforce by 20% to 30% every year. In logistics, i.e. in online retail, robots are already obviously cheaper than human labor. Without them, the systems wouldn’t work. Online retail is thus establishing itself as the “main street of the future.” Of course, this will have a major impact on our consumer behavior and therefore on our daily lives. But it will also cause our familiar surroundings to change. Stores will close and our cityscape will change dramatically.
So even without direct physical contact with robotic systems, robots are already exerting a major influence on the lives of individuals. Autonomous vehicles will massively change our mobility behavior in general. The resulting effects on the climate problem will also have a major impact on all of us.

On the other hand, robot butlers who dust our homes will be a long time coming. Developing such complex systems is very time-consuming and expensive – if not impossible. The workflows aren’t clear or repetitive enough. But the environment also plays an important role. The more human an environment is, the more difficult it is to automate. Unlike the private environment, which is designed for humans, it’s relatively easy to create optimal conditions for robots in a warehouse: Everything from guidance systems and markings to loading stations and labeling can be optimized for automation there. That’s not easy in a private household, where the infrastructure is always oriented toward human occupants.

Gastronomy is another area that can be standardized: Replacing service personnel with robotic delivery and communication systems has been a big trend in Korea’s catering industry for quite some time, for example.
Delivering meals or drinks is also an interesting topic for the entire care sector. Communication robots used in hospitals or care facilities can provide much faster and more efficient contact with caregivers, who in turn can better prioritize urgent cases based on information gathered by the robot. All these areas will become hybrid, combined systems in the foreseeable future.

The skepticism and problems with acceptance will simply disappear over time. The up-and-coming generation will have quite a different attitude to this issue. Their willingness to go along with technological progress is a given. But people who actually have to deal with robots in their work environment will quickly get over their fear of contact.

Is our society making appropriate preparations for the coming changes in the labor market? Are we already educating the younger generation well in this area?

Martina Mara: We are slowly starting to think about what training for tomorrow’s labor market needs to look like, what competencies and skills will be more in demand in the future. But there’s still a lot of potential for optimization. Especially with regard to the younger generation, it’s vitally important to take on more responsibility.
It would be great if society could deal with these issues in a more self-determined way by increasing overall technological literacy. People who have at least a basic knowledge of how a technology works and how it can be used are also much more likely to consider how they themselves could apply it to areas they’re interested in. That basic knowledge also makes it easier to reflect on which activities will no longer be in high demand in the next few years, and on how people can actively create new spheres of action for themselves.

When it comes to creating new jobs, there would be a lot of potential in linking current technologies with other specialist domains, for example AI and health or AI and climate protection. There’s a lot of innovative potential in that kind of bridge-building, but it can only unfold if people have knowledge in both areas.

How should our education system adapt to the changing requirements?

Martina Mara: In addition to teaching technology-related skills, we also need to promote characteristically human skills, because those are going to become increasingly relevant. They include social-communicative skills as well as creativity, inventiveness, critical thinking and initiative. Teaching brainstorming methods and how to collaborate in diverse teams is something we should focus on strongly in the education sector. At the moment, terms such as interdisciplinarity, brainstorming and creativity are used more as buzzwords – often with too little practical meaning. The education system should focus more on these core competencies and anchor them firmly in the system. The extent to which these things are taught in school is still too dependent on the commitment of individual teachers.

Learn more about Working In and On the Future — a new exhibition at the Ars Electronica Center, about the progress of research on human and machine communication in the CoBot Studio, and about why to trust a robot colleague at the Ars Electronica Blog. New perspectives on the future of humanity together with robots can be found in Humanity and Robotinity, Episode 4 from the Ars Electronica Futurelab’s 25th Anniversary Series.

Martina MaraMartina Mara studied communication sciences in Vienna and received her PhD in psychology from the University of Koblenz-Landau under Prof. Markus Appel on user acceptance of human-like machines. After many years of research work in non-university settings, including at the Ars Electronica Futurelab, she was recruited as Professor of Robopsychology at the Linz Institute of Technology (LIT) at JKU in April 2018. Her work focuses on psychological conditions of human-centered technology development and interdisciplinary research strategies. Together with partners from science and industry, she investigates, among other things, effects of simulated emotionality in machine agents or communication designs of autonomous vehicles and collaborative robots. Mara is a member of the Austrian Council for Robotics and Artificial Intelligence (ACRAI). As a newspaper columnist, she regularly comments on current technological events for a wide audience. In 2018, she was awarded the BAWAG Women’s Prize as well as the Futurezone Award in the category “Women in Tech”.

Roland Haring, Ars Electronica FuturelabRoland Haring studied Media Technology and Design at Hagenberg University of Applied Sciences. Since 2003, he has been a member of the Ars Electronica Futurelab and one of the driving forces behind the lab’s R&D efforts. His activities include research and development in several large R&D projects with academic, artistic and commercial partners and collaborators.
Currently, Roland Haring is Technical Director of Ars Electronica Futurelab and co-responsible for its general management, content conception and technical development. With his many years of experience in the (software) technical management of large-scale, research-intensive projects, he is an expert in the design, architecture and development of interactive applications. Learn more about Roland Haring’s Key Research Coimmersive Spaces on the Ars Electronica Futurelab’s website.