Meet your cobot colleague
Singapore, September 10, 2018
Getting machines to understand the complexity of human language is no mean feat. For example, when an English-Russian translation machine developed during the Cold War was tasked with translating the phrase “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak,” the best it could come up with was “the vodka is good, but the meat is rotten.”
With the advent of artificial intelligence (AI), however, machines have made astounding progress in their ability to understand humans. In fact, researchers from Microsoft recently reached a new milestone when their English-Chinese translation software was judged to be just as good as human
As more and more tasks once considered the exclusive preserve of humans are ceded over to machines, workplaces of the future are likely to feature non-human colleagues, said Mr Chia Wee Boon, Chief Executive Officer of NCS. Cobots, short for ‘collaborative robots’, are already a built-in feature of many modern factory floors, and look set to invade offices in the form of digital assistants, chatbots and more.
Cobots as colleagues
One reason we can be sure that cobots are the future of work is that they have the potential to improve productivity and ultimately, profitability. When local precision engineering firm Feinmetall faced a shortage of skilled workers, they turned to a machine that could bend components in less than half the time required by a human worker. This freed up staff to do other tasks and increased the company’s
overall productivity by ten percent2.
While businesses may welcome automation for its ability to reduce costs and increase productivity, workers themselves might resist the changes, particularly if they are perceived to come at the expense of employees. In the often-cited example of self-driving vehicles, automation is seen as disrupting the livelihood of taxi and truck drivers, who may then struggle to find other forms of employment.
However, research by consulting firm McKinsey & Company has shown that only less than five percent3 of current jobs can be fully replaced by automation. Rather than displacing existing staff, cobots are likely to complement humans as colleagues. Furthermore, adopting automation could also help workers command higher wages; Feinmetall’s staff saw their wages go up by four to eight percent after the introduction of the bending machine.
More choices, greater capabilities
From the worker’s point of view, technology such as AI is poised to replace the manual and mundane
aspects of many jobs, freeing people up to do more creative and engaging work. At the law firm Wong Partnership, AI is used to review large numbers of legal documents, reducing the amount of time required for due diligence4.
AI is also essential for helping people cope with the data deluge, which it does by crunching the data into bite-sized, actionable pieces. “By automatically processing the data and coming up with a range of options, machines can help enhance our decision-making abilities,” Mr Chia said. “In the future, we will be seeing more of these virtual assistants that create optionality for users.”
Beyond giving people more choices, technology will also extend human capabilities, allowing us to do things that were simply not possible before.
In the realm of cybersecurity for example, a single organisation might be bombarded by billions of bytes of information every hour, making analysing and understanding the potential threats impossible for human beings.
“Because it is not humanly possible to process so much data at once, we have no choice but to depend on machines. In such cases, technology is not replacing human jobs, but making it possible for people to do their jobs in an effective and efficient manner,” Mr Chia said.
Breaking it down
As powerful as they may be, our cobot colleagues will still need our help, particularly since they work in a very different way. Unlike humans which are adaptable and flexible, robots do best when there are clear instructions and no exceptions. Tasks that humans might find simple, such as preparing an invoice for a particular client, will need to be broken down step-by-step into their component parts for machines to be able to understand them.
Similarly, traditional organisational structures will also need to be broken down into specific functions and aligned to tasks rather than departments. “Disruptive technologies will have an impact across the board, so while departments such as marketing, human resources and finance will still remain, each person is likely to have an expanded scope of work than spans these traditional silos,” explained Mr Chia.
But no matter how technology may change the speed and scope of work, the need for connectedness will remain the same, he added. “People will always be human; they will need to rest and have social connections both within and outside the office,” Mr Chia said. “At the end of the day it is important to remember these human aspects and place people at the centre of all our workplace digitalisation efforts.”
1. Microsoft (2018), Microsoft reaches a historic milestone, using AI to match human performance in translating news from Chinese to English, https://blogs.microsoft.com/ai/machine-translation-news-test-set-human-parity/
2. Today (2017), Automation helps manufacturing firm to improve productivity by 10 per cent,
3. McKinsey & Company (2017), Harnessing automation for a future that works, https://www.mckinsey.com/globalthemes/digital-disruption/harnessing-automation-for-afuture-that-works
4. Business Times (2017), WongP first Singapore law firm to embrace AI,