The workplace is changing but the question remains: Will the manager of the future be a robot?

What if your boss was a robot? One with advanced artificial intelligence and human-like physical features, capable of assessing your emotions? Would more robots mean human managers would become obsolete? Another science fiction fantasy? Not so, claim some scientists. And what about the moral and ethical questions this raises?

Several mainstream publications have devoted cover space to articles about automation and the use of robots, as well as the impact on the economy and the evolution of work. In The Atlantic magazine, Derek Thompson provides an in-depth analysis of this issue. He argues the world is entering an era of technology that is vastly different than the current one — one of “technological unemployment,” in which computers and robots will be able to virtually invent a large proportion of the population out of work “permanently.” He contends human labour will no longer be the driver of economic growth.

Producers of robots in the United States are already claiming that investing in machines is more profitable than hiring people. Technology enables lower levels of human labour outlays. Any job that is done routinely and repetitively can be done by a computer program or robot.

Journalism, most office work, even jobs in the medical profession, accounting and law, all could be done by computers one day. But some experts say jobs that require judgment and interactions with other people might be safe — healthcare, education and social net sectors, for example.

“Robotization” is the final frontier of the world of work. If a machine can do something a human can do, it is only a matter of time before it does this cheaper and more efficiently, write Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) economists and the authors of  Race Against the Machine.

Other researchers confirm this. In a published paper titled: “The Future of Employment: How Susceptible are Jobs to Computerization” C.B. Frey and M.A. Osborne, researchers at Oxford University, created a model that calculates the probability of substituting a worker in a given sector. Frey and Osborne conclude machines may replace 47 per cent of active workers in the future.

And while the issue of emotions isn’t fully solved, computers already have a good handle on stress, fear and anger. Many can even be set up to handle self-motivation.

But while technological limitations are disappearing, social, moral and ethical ones remain. How can you persuade your team to trust artificial intelligence? Or to accept a robot as a team member — or manager? Will employees be able to express their emotional concerns to a robot manager?

Research shows giving machines a voice, a body, or even a name can make people more comfortable working with them. For instance, many people collaborate with robots more effectively when they make “eye contact” and robots appear cuter and more humanoid when they tilt their heads to one side.

In an experiment, MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab had two humans and one robot collaborate in one of three conditions: manual, or all tasks allocated by a human; fully autonomous or all tasks allocated by the robot; and semi-autonomous or a human allocates tasks to self and a robot allocates tasks to another human. The fully autonomous condition proved most effective for the task, and was the method preferred by the humans. The workers were more likely to say the robots “better understood them” and they “improved the efficiency of the team.”

Another study from the Human-Computer Interaction Lab at the University of Manitoba, suggests found humans willing to take orders from computers, more than they were from other humans.

Robotic or computer software managers may seem far-fetched now, and few are willing to predict when they will be the authority figure in the corner office. Yet, a surprising array of managerial functions already has been turned over to artificial intelligence. Computers sort resumés of job seekers for relevant experience and to estimate how long a potential employee is likely to stay; they map email exchanges, phone calls and even impromptu hallway interactions to track workflow and recommend changes, and software analyzes customer data for algorithms, which in turn changes when and where workers are deployed.

Despite the practical and ethical questions that remain to be answered, one thing is certain: The workplace is changing and applications of technology to allow remote and mobile independent work may make the current use of managers obsolete. Will they be replaced by robots, or by individual worker initiative?

Ray Williams is president of Ray Williams Associates, a firm located in Vancouver, providing executive coaching and professional speaking services. He is author of a new book, Eye of the Storm: How Mindful Leaders Can Transform Chaotic Workplaces. He can be reached at

Source: The workplace is changing but the question remains: Will the manager of the future be a robot?

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