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When your co-worker is an AI-driven robot

  • Those who work with bots and artificial intelligence say automation isn’t a threat but instead augment human capabilities to make people more innovative and productive
  • With the advent of technology, one thing is certain: all repetitive, heavily process-oriented tasks will become irrelevant for people, who will be replaced by machines

(Left) New Engineering Works CEO Divesh Debuka introduced ‘cobots’ at the firm’s Jamshedpur facility to boost output, and (right) mfine co-founder Prasad Kompalli.
(Left) New Engineering Works CEO Divesh Debuka introduced ‘cobots’ at the firm’s Jamshedpur facility to boost output, and (right) mfine co-founder Prasad Kompalli.

When Neha Samad, who works as a senior operator at New Engineering Works’ factory in Jamshedpur, was asked to train a robot to carry out maintenance of the automated machine she works with, she felt empowered, not threatened. “Before collaborative robots were introduced on the factory floor, we had to stand for more than eight hours to operate our machines and we did all the physical work, like loading and unloading components on the conveyer belt," she says.

The chief executive officer of the company, Divesh Debuka, introduced “cobots", small collaborative robots by Universal Robots, in the factory three years ago to make output more efficient. Samad adapted, learnt and quickly figured how to give instructions to the cobot and make it do the physical part of her job. Her daily job, like the other human operators in the factory, became overseeing and operating machines and the cobots and keeping a tab on quality. “I feel like a mini-manager operating my little unit," she says. “The robot, the CNC (computer numeric control) machine and I work in collaboration, and I only intervene when there is a breakdown, or when I need to change tools."

With the advent of technology, one thing is certain: all repetitive, heavily process-oriented tasks will become irrelevant for people, who will be replaced by machines. The dystopian world imagined by Black Mirror, the popular Netflix series on the not-so-distant future, where the robots will take over our jobs, is already here. New technology is fast changing white-collar and blue-collar jobs like Samad’s, making repetitive tasks redundant and forcing humans to adapt and change.

About 50-70% of repetitive and predictive roles in sectors including information technology (IT), banking, manufacturing, transportation, retail, healthcare, logistics and education, will be open to automation in the coming years, according to data by Indian Staffing Federation, a Delhi-based apex body of the flexi staffing industry. “This doesn’t mean millions of workers will be without a job soon," says Rituparna Chakraborty, president of the federation. “It simply means human workers need to leverage their value with creativity, intricate information processing and cognitive skills."

Change your mindset

It’s all about looking at artificial intelligence (AI) not as a replacement for humans but as an enabler, says Bengaluru-based Raja Indana, a doctor with 13 years of experience. “AI is like a stethoscope, a device that can assist us in predicting and preventing health, making diagnosis much faster and more accurate," he says.

This conviction that technology will aid his medical career led Dr Indana to join mfine, a health technology startup based in Bengaluru in October 2017. As the head of the medical team, his work revolves around helping data scientists and engineers understand medical language and build a healthcare platform that works as an assistant to a doctor, using the best capabilities of AI.

Thanks to new technology, he has been able to deliver care beyond the physical boundaries of the hospital, treating patients in more than 800 towns across India, something that wouldn’t have been possible within his previous workspace.

“The change is inevitable and I see many doctors adapting to technology as it has changed every facet of our lives, affecting even primary healthcare," he says, admitting that 10 years from now, his day job would be vastly different from what it is today.

Isn’t he scared of the change? “Technology-driven healthcare is massive and inevitable, and rather than be scared, I want to embrace it," he says.

Upskill regularly

Work certainly looks a lot different from what it did 10 years ago. According to LinkedIn’s 2017 Workplace Learning Report, the average skill now has a shelf life of five years. Prasad Kompalli, co-founder and chief executive of mfine and Dr Indana’s boss, believes employees need to upskill themselves every six months, irrespective of the industry.

“Technology changes rapidly and every business today is becoming a technology-first business," he says, adding that businesses are now ensuring their employees are exposed to challenges in new technology, and are being upskilled with training programmes. “Human intuition, creativity, non-linear thinking and learning will always be difficult for machines and will remain so," he points out.

Advanced technologies are not replacing humans. They are augmenting intelligence and human capabilities to make them more productive and efficient. Shubha Rao, a director at healthcare solutions company Indegene, identifies areas in the healthcare field that are affected by newer technology and then helps technologists to create solutions in clinical, regulatory and safety domains of healthcare. Five years in this role, and she has had to reskill and gain new knowledge, including how robotic process automation, AI and neuro-linguistic programming are augmenting human capacity and how it all impacts healthcare.

Need to learn constantly

“I won’t say my previous skill sets have become redundant," she says, “but the ways that I use my skills have changed." She sees incremental and robust change as a constant in her career and relearning and upskilling every few months as a part of her job.

“To stay relevant you have to constantly learn, upskill and reskill and accept change as part of your career," she says, adding that rapid adoption is necessary for people working in industries which are changing with advanced technology.

Today’s leaders recognize the need to actively reskill their employees. Sixty-four percent of chief executive officers believe they must upskill or reskill 25% of their workforce over the next five years for their companies to stay relevant, according to a report by McKinsey Global Institute, Skill Shift: Automation and The future of workforce, published in May 2018.

Important changes that are required in companies to adapt to this, according to the report, is a mindset shift towards life-long learning and training and a more agile corporate structure, with a stress on the gig economy to use skilled contractors when required. “It is far more likely that AI will change our jobs, not take them over," says T.J. Williams, chief revenue officer, Degreed, a San-Francisco-based skill building platform.

Workplace learning is the future and people need to get on-board with the fact that they will spend their career learning and adapting to rapid changes, brought on by technology.

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