x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 December 2017

Don't be afraid of the robots

Increased automation is raising concern about job losses, but are we right to be worried about artificial intelligence? 

Italian flutist Andrea Griminelli and Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli as they and The Lucca Philharmonic Orchestra are conducted by robot 'Yumi' for the first time at The Teatro Verdi in Pisa.  Miguel medina / AFP
Italian flutist Andrea Griminelli and Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli as they and The Lucca Philharmonic Orchestra are conducted by robot 'Yumi' for the first time at The Teatro Verdi in Pisa. Miguel medina / AFP

Where once we could smile benevolently at the prospect of increased automation and the introduction of robots into our daily lives, should we now be concerned that artificial intelligence is on the cusp of replacing real intelligence?

Last week, the Dubai-based Mashreq Bank revealed it would shed around 10 per cent of its workforce as its investment in AI reduces its reliance on human resources. "Employment at the banks will shrink over time," Abdul Aziz Al Ghurair, the bank’s CEO, told The National. This week, our Arts & Lifestyle team have documented efforts in London by Starship Technologies to have small robots deliver takeaway food and goods ordered from supermarkets. This follows similar experiments elsewhere in the world with airborne drones and delivery devices. The robots are coming, for sure, and not just in the guise of human-sized butlers designed to cater to our requirements and whims. They are now performing real tasks at the expense of real jobs.

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The reality is, one would suggest, somewhat different. In the case of Starship Technologies, who wouldn’t prefer fewer human-driven vehicles on the roads, particularly on this country’s clogged arteries at rush hour? Who wouldn’t prefer fewer conversations with delivery drivers that rely on informally triangulating their position by local landmarks? The case with banks is largely the same. As hard as the medicine might be to swallow, customer tastes are changing and with it, so will staff levels in branches, particularly as consumers shift in ever greater numbers to online banking and apps.

As robots and AI play an ever greater role in our lives, we should also reaffirm our faith in human resource. Repetitive tasks carried out by robots mean more time for humans to perform more creative endeavours. Having food delivered by robots could free up more time for food preparation in the kitchen. More AI in the banking world may actually bring a greater emphasis on “relationship management” and more interaction between customers and employees.

So, yes, the robots are coming. But with them will also arrive more time for human collaboration. Don’t bet against the power of real intelligence just yet.

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