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AI and robotics an opportunity as well as a challenge

Themes explored at the Social Robotics and AI event included augmenting human creativity with technology and future skills

The increasing advancement of AI and robotics must be seen as an opportunity as well as a challenge, according to some speakers at a Social Robotics and AI conference.

Chess champion and visiting fellow at the Oxford Martin School Garry Kasparov pointed out that “one thing machines don’t do yet is dream".

“People have legitimate concerns,” he added, pointing to experts such as Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk. “But I fear we are losing sight of machines' ability to help us dream and change the world. So will we be too scared to take on these grand challenges?

“Machines have been replacing humans since the very first one but it probably the very next day created jobs when people were needed to fix the damn thing! Every generation has been afraid of what was to come,” he said. He explained that because machines “are now coming for the the people with university degrees,” and with greater opportunity to publicise their concerns, these fears now seem more pronounced.

Kasparov pointed to chess championships as a strong example of AI’s potential to enhance rather than replace human ingenuity. “Computers in chess took away really boring calculation, which then allowed humans to be more creative,” he said.

“It's not about jobs being taken over but tasks being taken over,” agreed Kalyan Kumar, EVP and CTO at HCL Technologies. He said organisations should split tasks into four categories: machine-only tasks ripe for pure automation, a machines augmented by humans category, humans augmented by machines, and human-centric tasks. “You could take this blueprint and apply it to any business,” he said.

Speaking to HR magazine after his talk, Kumar caveated, however, that a future of employees redeployed rather than replaced hinges on them having the right digital skills.

“When you reach Masters and PhD level that’s when you start to get real business involvement [in what skills are taught]… What’s missing today is education that gets people ready for work,” he said, explaining that in HCL’s experience even the best digital graduates need at least a year’s further training. Kumar added that an important future skill will be the ability to integrate robots with an organisation’s existing software and systems.

Also speaking at the conference was Gorkan Ahmetoglu, lecturer in business psychology at UCL and co-founder of Meta Profiling. He added the concern that workers will need to be self-reliant to survive in an increasingly automated gig economy. “People will need opportunism and creativity not just as an ability, but as a tendency,” he said.

He warned that while media attention around entrepreneur success stories means many more now start their own businesses, the failure rate is also much higher, and this hasn’t created enough of an entrepreneurial mindset within established firms.

“We are seeing more business founders rather than entrepreneurial people,” Ahmetoglu said, explaining that being entrepreneurial “is not a categorical thing” but rather a quality people possess to varying degrees. He said businesses must do more to encourage these qualities and retain those who want to innovate.