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Expert Comment: Bank employs robots - is your job next?

Robots Monday 9 February 2015

As a Japanese bank announces plans to trial robot employees Dr David Reid, Senior Lecturer in Computer Science, looks at the potential for robots in the workplace.

If you ask most people about robots and the impact they've had on society, typically they'll talk about the automation of factories in the 1990s, and the  loss of blue collar jobs,  or perhaps describe the more recent ethical dilemmas involved in the increased use of drones for military or surveillance purposes.

However we may be on the eve of a robotic revolution that is more subtle, but has the potential to impact on society in a dramatic and fundamental way that is even more significant.

It was announced last week that Japan's biggest bank (Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group) is going to employ robots in their branches to talk to customers.

We use exactly these robots (Alderbaran Nao robots) in the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science, here at Hope, in order to conduct research into AI and vision systems, and the new Science Building has a planned facility for robotic research.

These Japanese banking robots will discuss with customers money exchange, ATMs, opening a bank account, or overseas remittance.

Nestle of Japan is also planning to use robots (Alderbaran Pepper) in order to sell coffee machines in shops. Such robots are already being trialled in hotels in order interact with all aspects of customers needs.

These  “social robots” are able to converse with you, recognise and react to your emotions. This ability to analyse your facial expression, body language and the words you use allows the robot to guess your mood and adapt to it.

Such robots are being developed for healthcare, education, the service industries and in a myriad of other job sectors that have hitherto been relatively untouched by recent technological developments.

Initially I am sure these robots will make many mistakes; but as Google's self driving car has shown, eventually, as more sophisticated learning algorithms are developed, the seemingly impossibly complex task of driving a car down a busy street can be mastered. Similarly social  robots will become more and more skilled in giving advice and reacting to customers needs.

Such technologies will have serious economic and social consequences. Social robots will affect the service sector in just as a dramatic way as earlier robots affected the manufacturing sector. No longer are just the jobs of people who work with their hands under threat, but also the jobs of people who work with their minds. For the first time white collar jobs could be replaced.

Futurologist Martin Ford is writing a book due out this year, “The Rise of the Robots”, which describes the impact this will have on the white collar middle classes. “The Second Machine Age” by Dr Erik Brynjolfsson and Dr Andrew McAfee from MIT business school describes the types of jobs that will, and will not, be at immediate risk by this upcoming revolution.

Most at risk are jobs that have an element of cognitive or manual repetition that can be easily programmed. For example payroll clerks, checkout staff, post office clerks, bank clerks, local government administrative officials and waiters – all at risk. Least at risk are those jobs that are cognitively difficult to model, such as skilled managers, computing or engineering jobs, educational based jobs those jobs in the arts and media. In a recent report it was estimated that within ten years that 35% of UK jobs are in danger of disappearing because of the increased use of social robotics.

The advantage of using social robots with an ageing population is one of the driving factors with Japans massive investment in AI and robotics in recent years. Japan is doing this because it has an ageing population and such jobs are difficult to fill. If such a robot can be developed it is far more cost effective over the lifetime of the job to develop the robotics/AI needed.

But as with all technological advances, it is not all simply negative or positive.  The relationship with these  robots may become more nuanced than simply 'master and servant'.

Hollywood has picked up on this in a couple of recent films. In the 2012 film, Robot & Frank, an elderly man with early onset dementia forms a touching and beneficial relationship with his helper robot because, for him, the quantity and quality of human contact afforded to him is limited. In the upcoming film Chappie, a robot is designed that learns and feels. The child-like robot reflects back to its creators what is the best and worst of human characteristics. It acts as a mirror to its creators. And in doing so its creators learn something about themselves. The film highlights the way that  humanity react with other potentially sentient minds says just as much about our progression as it does about technological progression.

As with all technological advances Social Robotics has vast potential and vast dangers; however unlike most technological advances it has a very immediate ability to change relationships with both the technologies involved and, perhaps ore importantly, with each other.






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