AI bots
AI-backed robot -- Representational Image REUTERS /Arnd Wiegmann

As increased use of technology affects more and more aspects of our personal and work lives, it's no surprise that many of us assume that 'intelligent machines' will gradually take over and lead to us losing out on jobs. But there's more to the narrative than this foregone conclusion. Despite fears of a potential 'robot takeover', the use of artificial intelligence (AI) could have a significantly positive impact, not only increasing an organisation's efficiency, but also improving the lives of its employees.

So what are 'intelligent machines' exactly? Some may think of humanoid-type robots, walking into the office on mechanical legs, and perhaps needing the odd maintenance check-up every now and then. In reality, there's more to these machines than this simplistic image. Intelligent machines encompass a range of technologies, from AI to machine learning and Robotic Process Automation (RPA). These terms refer to aspects of technology that are taking on an increased role within many organisations to help analyse, question and automate processes that can otherwise be time-consuming and/or inefficient for a human to do.

It should be emphasised that such machines are not a replacement of humans in these tasks. In many roles, some of which require manual inputting, for example, automation can be highly effective in taking on dull or repetitive tasks. Other jobs, revolved around interaction with a customer, do require a level of emotional intelligence and thus can only be provided authentically by humans.

Although machines can help to anticipate a specific customer's needs and provide data that it feels is relevant to them, it may be that the human can rely on more intangible factors such as body language, tone of voice or other cultural aspects, which machines have limited capability to understand. A machine providing timely, relevant customer data and a human working alongside it to exercise judgement can be a powerful combination. When it comes to machines and humans, it's not an 'either/or' scenario – both can work together to augment each other in order to add significant value.

Pega recently conducted a study following 845 global senior executives spanning a range of industries, including financial services, insurance, manufacturing, telecoms & media, public sector, and retail. With 69% of respondents anticipating the 'workforce' would eventually encompass both human employees and intelligent machines, this indicates a future in which machines will work alongside humans, not replacing them.

More use of machines could also have many other benefits for the lives of human employee in the workplace. For instance, many expect that automation of mundane tasks by smart machines will result in many human workers seeing everyday frustrations caused by the mundanity of their roles eliminated, enabling them to learn new skills and engage in more rewarding areas.

While our Pega study found that 70 percent of senior executives expect AI to mainly replace workers in administrative roles within the next 20 years, 69 percent said that they expected these workers to be moved into other parts of the organisation – rather than losing their jobs – where they could perform more varied and satisfying roles.

It's worth asking if organisations feel this is an accurate representation of things to come. Despite the doom and gloom that surrounds the use of machines, interestingly, the same study answers this question: the vast majority – 88 percent – of humans are comfortable with the prospect of working alongside smart machines.

Further to this, 91% stated they felt comfortable managing machines, though this is somewhat a one-way view, as far as senior executives are concerned. 79% of these executives stated they would not be comfortable in machines managing them. 78% did feel comfortable if a machine vocalised how it reached its decisions, which indicates that a lack of trust remains.

It's evident that the negativity surrounding 'intelligent machines' in the workplace should be given less attention, and focus should turn instead to the benefits they can bring on an operational level and on an individual basis. Adjusting to working alongside these technologies will take some time, but this will indeed prove effective in the long run.

Over the coming months and years, more and more intelligent machines are going to be working alongside humans to augment, not replace, the jobs they are doing, adding greater business efficiencies and job satisfaction as a result. Perhaps then we may wonder how we ever got anything done without our new robot friends.

John Everhard is director at Pegasystems.