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Meet your new coworker—it’s a robot!

And they’re coming soon to a cubicle near you. Here’s why you should love your automated colleagues.

Meet your new coworker—it’s a robot!

That persistent fear you have of robots invading your workplace? Well, they’re already here—and more are on the way. Having evolved from the massive spark-emitting machines on a factory floor, the coming generation of robots will be smaller, smarter, and office-friendly. But fear not, it turns out that the nightmare of a soulless machine competing for your paycheck is no more than bad science fiction.

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During a panel discussion at Cisco Live 2019 in June, three experts in the ever-evolving field of robotics participated in a wide-ranging exchange on the current state (and future) of robots in the workplace, as well as some lessons learned by companies that have already integrated them into their work sites. The following is an abbreviated transcript of their conversation.

One of the most pervasive myths about robots is this fear that they will be a replacement for people’s work—that they will kill jobs. But this isn’t necessarily true. The field is evolving and changing the types of work we do.

Melonee Wise, chief executive officer, Fetch Robotics: There’s been a transition from standard industrial robots to those that are more collaborative, that work with people and are safe to be around. And robots today are taking tasks, not jobs. A job is a composition of tasks. And robots will enable companies to have their associates do the tasks that provide a lot of value—and shed the tasks that they don’t like to do or those that don’t provide as much value to the company.

Fran Katsoudas, executive vice president and chief people officer, Cisco

Fran Katsoudas, executive vice president and chief people officer, Cisco: We live in a world of constant change. Something that we believe strongly at Cisco is that automation, the leveraging of robotics, will make the workplace a more human place, where there’s more community. And that robotics and automation and artificial intelligence will supplement the work that we’re doing today. We can probably blame science fiction and the entertainment industry for pushing this idea of job-stealing robots.

MW: Absolutely. The media campaign against robots started 50 years before there was a robot. The first movie robot ended up taking all the jobs and killing all the people. But you’re starting to see a positive change in the media around robots today, like with Wall-E. And I think it’s because people are having more and more real interactions with robots. They’re actually getting to experience them in their daily lives.

Melonee, at what stage in robotics are we today? And what are some of the big advances over the last few years that have really moved things along?

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MW: I think that we’re in pretty early stages for the capabilities of what robots are able to do today. They have the capabilities of a small puppy. They can manipulate simple things; they can do simple tasks. It’s actually a good place to start because it makes it easier for people to get excited about working with the robots.

As to the big developments, there have been a lot of different things that have impacted robotics over the last decades. One of the biggest, in the early 2000s, was the development of an open-source platform, called the Robot Operating System, that most of the robotics community is now aligned on. That made it easier and easier for people to start companies, and a lot of other things that impacted cost and computing power.

You witness on a regular basis how people interact with robots, whether they’re customers or your own employees. Is there anything that has surprised you?

MW: What’s really interesting, when you look at the training of an associate at the work site, is that people typically respond not out of fear, but out of concern that they’re not smart enough to work with the robots. We spend a lot of time helping customers train their associates in robot etiquette.

Melonee Wise, chief executive officer, Fetch Robotics

We help people understand the ways in which robots are less intelligent. There are several studies that show that when people think robots are more intelligent than them, they get very frustrated and upset.

Our teams name the robots. So they become like dogs: very useful, companion coworkers. Within the first week of getting robots on-site, teams are really excited; they feel like they’ve formed a bond with their robots. And they understand what the capabilities of the robots are and how they affect their work directly.

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In many cases, because we’re in the manufacturing and logistics environment, the age of the worker is significantly older. So they have back problems, knee problems. Many say, “This robot coworker’s going to keep me in this job a lot longer.” They’re excited to start working with their buddy who’s going to save their back, save their knees, and really make their job more enjoyable.

So there’s this personalization of robots—naming them, referring to them as your buddy. Kate, you’ve been studying this space and gaining an understanding of what’s been going on out there. What’s your perspective?

Kate Darling, social robotics expert and research specialist, MIT Media Lab

Kate Darling, social robotics expert and research specialist, MIT Media Lab: I love what Melonee was just saying about treating the robot like a dog versus a person because of this constant comparison of robots to humans, and artificial intelligence to human intelligence. When, really, if you look at how we’re integrating this technology, it’s not. Machines have a very different type of skill set and intelligence than what humans have. The real potential here is to not re-create what we already have, but to build a partner in what we’re trying to achieve, the same way we’ve used animals for millennia.

And it’s so interesting to see companies talk about naming the robot and see how much of a difference something like a name can make. “Oh, Betsy made a mistake. Let’s help her out.” Instead of, “This stupid machine doesn’t work.” Design decisions like that can get people to trust the technology and actually enjoy working with it, because we have this tendency to anthropomorphize robots and personify them. If we lean into that a little bit, it can actually help with the acceptance of the technology.

Melonee, you said robotics is still in its infancy. Where do you think advanced-level work falls on the timeline?

MW: In terms of the semantic intelligence you need to do a lot of these things, we’re pretty far off. We can do very complicated things in highly controlled scenarios, like welding a car body—and that’s very complicated. We help that robot do its job very well.

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When people talk about trying to give robots a level of intelligence, they’re talking about if you could take something that has the equivalent intelligence of a 5-year-old human—and say, “Go learn.” But we’re nowhere near that.

Fran, as we discuss the growing presence of robots in the workplace, what are some of the skill sets that you think will be invaluable for the Cisco employee base three to five years from now?

FK: The basic things would include solid communication skills and possessing some level of creativity. What we’re working with our people to better understand is: How do you leverage the intelligence that’s out there?

But what I would also say to someone just stepping into the workplace is, follow your passion. I think we’re seeing an amazing opportunity to add onto all of this technology with a very human experience. The more that people feel like they’re playing to their strengths, the better they’re going to be.

To see more of this engaging conversation on the future of robotics in the workplace, watch the full discussion below.

This article was created for and commissioned by Cisco.

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