The workplace should be designed for (and by) people, not robots

Omnicorp logoFrom existential and dystopian fears expressed through books and films, we have long had an uneasy relationship with the idea of automatons and artificial intelligence. The UKCES saw robotics and automation as significant enough to include in it’s recent report on the future of work and the risks to jobs are very real based even on the more widespread adoption of the technologies already available to us. The possibility that many people may cease to have any economic value is a challenge we seem ill-equipped to meet. As ever, the web giants are leading the charge with Amazon prototyping delivery of packages by the kind of drones more commonly used over the tribal badlands of Afghanistan, as well as Google’s recent purchase of Boston Dynamics, makers of military-spec robots. The people behind the algorithms that gave us the unintentional hilarity of Google Suggest are now branching to create the sort of killer robots produced by OmniCorp in the Robocop movies.

Computers aren’t funny by design for very good reasons. Creativity, emotion and humour are just three of the traits that set us far apart from other living things, or at least those that we are aware of. The threats from robotic artificial intelligence we fear most are those that suppress, subdue or supplant our very humanity. In the Terminator scenario the machines seek to wipe us from the face of the earth and, as anyone who has lived through nuclear proliferation will attest, we’re eminently stupid enough to build the technological wherewithal to do just that. Blade Runner’s rogue replicants are almost indistinguishable from humans but it’s their inability to show a truly empathetic emotional response that gives them away. That essence of humanity is unreplicable. The Fromm quote at the head of this post is particularly apposite in this regard.

Algorithms are defined as an effective method expressed as a finite list of well-defined instructions for calculating a function. “Finite” and “well-defined” are certainties. If creativity is part of what makes us human and creativity requires us to let go of certainties, we have a long way to go before the kind of creativity we recognise as essentially human is capable of reproduction by artificial intelligence. However, its not stopping people from having a go. AutoCorrect functions regularly throw up enough unintended howlers that there are thousands of websites dedicated to the genre. AutoCorrect is an algorithm. The algorithm isn’t funny. It’s unplanned effects are. However, the boffins won’t let it lie there. Alessandro Valitutti, Jukka M. Toivanen and Hannu Toivonen from the University of Helsinki and their colleague from Normandy University, Antoine Doucet, have proposed a method for automated generation of adult humour by lexical replacement and have presented empirical evaluation results of the obtained humour. This doesn’t seem to be a satire in and of itself and as such seems beyond satirising. The gist is, AutoCorrect is unintentionally funny, therefore, because it is based on an algorithm, we can alter the algorithm to make it deliberately funny. As a consequence, messrs Valitutti, Toivonen, Toivanen and Doucet have themselves become unintentionally funny.

When we talk about making better work and working lives, we’re not doing so for the benefit of robots but for humans. People. Where technology can advance the cause of sustainable human existence and introduce tools to enable and enhance our human creativity, we should embrace it. People clean up the mistakes left by other people. Algorithms are written by people. When “the computer says no” it’s a human being who intervenes to bring humanity back into focus and deliver what’s really needed. The robots may one day take our seat at the table, but I’m betting – we’ll be back.


Simon HeathSimon Heath is a freelance illustrator and commentator on workplace and facilities management issues and was formerly Head of Operations, Global Workplace Strategies at CBRE. For more of Simon’s worldly, wise and witty writing on all things work and workplace, visit his blog