Humans and Machines: The Future of the Workplace

An ethnographer’s examination of the true nature of work finds that people and machines are in for a lasting partnership.

By Hank Shaw, Xerox contributor

The notion that robots will eventually take over our jobs and make humans obsolete has been floating around for decades, and Hollywood’s penchant for evil, world-dominating machines only adds to our wildest fears.

But in some sectors, new technology has in fact replaced manual labor and led to the elimination of countless jobs. Think factories, electronic toll booths and automated help lines.

While many companies still outsource large-scale call center operations with humans, how long until they’re replaced with virtual agents?

The answer: Don’t count people out. This from our ethnographic researchers, at the Xerox Research Centre Europe in Grenoble, France.

“Many activities in the workplace have ‘hidden complexities’ much better suited for intelligent human beings than intelligent machines.”

The researchers examined the workplace of the future, with a focus on whether futurists’ predictions that intelligent machines will replace humans could actually come true.

A reality check for ‘grand visions’ of the future

Research on the modern, tech-driven workplace, uncovered some fundamental flaws.

Take the idea that machines—i.e. “virtual agents”—will replace human workers in everything from customer service to medicine. From a technological standpoint, it seems possible, because advances in intelligent computing are quickly giving machines the ability to process natural language and connect with expert knowledge bases.

For example, call center employees often have to investigate the real reason for calls. They have to help translate the caller’s concerns and problems into terms that match up with the organization’s knowledge base software. And even if they’re sitting down, they have to think fast on their feet, since issues often pop up that aren’t covered by a script. In other words, the work is much more complex than it appears at first glance.

The unique capabilities of people and machines

In fact, many activities in the workplace have “hidden complexities” much better suited for intelligent human beings than intelligent machines —which is why computers are not likely to tap people on the shoulder and take over anytime in the near future.

Our researchers have some advice for futurists who sometimes think of machines as people and people as “human processors:” What matters is that we don’t use computer metaphors for people, and we don’t use people metaphors for computers. Rather we capitalize on, and value, their unique capabilities, and we put them together to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

This article was originally published in Real Business, a website from Xerox that provides ideas and information for decision makers in business and government.

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  1. Bora Wiemann April 16, 2014 - Reply

    Interesting that the blog focuses on Call Centres and Virtual Agents. There probably will always be some people in a contact centre role, but a good web self service can remove a lot of low value common question type of enquiries (common results range between 30 – 80% depending on the industry). I think it would be a interesting if the study would focus on the amount of non-repetitive work, that would be left once more and more automation takes place.

    • Tim Joyce April 16, 2014 - Reply

      Yes, self-service is a good place to start. Today we see a growing demand for online self-service, in fact for mobile brands, 40% of calls hitting the contact center actually started out online. 82% intended to self-serve yet failed. This boils down to two things, either the content is not available or it’s simply not discoverable. Where WDS have deployed self-service solutions that address these two issues, we have seen contact center traffic drop by 40%.

      In reference to the future of the workplace, specifically the contact center, I believe the provision of transactional customer care will be fully automated and intelligent machines will be able to navigate the complexities highlighted in the article. However, that’s not to say the workforce will become obsolete, but rather the role of the workforce will evolve into something of far greater value to consumer brands. For instance, even after six decades of automation, Toyota employs more people today than it ever has and they tend to be higher value and higher paid than before automation.

      I agree with the need to “capitalize on, and value, their unique capabilities, and put them together to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.” The unique capabilities of human agents are what will lead the provision of customer care away from problem management toward a future of problem prevention.

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