How we’ll really feel if robots take our jobs
It all depends on the type of emotion humans associate with the gig
Visitors staying at Starwood’s Aloft Hotel in Cupertino, California, not only have the luxury of humans greeting them and toting around their luggage, they also may be taken care of by a robot bellhop, named Botlr, who is mainly charged with delivering toiletries to guests’ rooms and eliciting smiles along the way.
Of course, by referring to a robot as “who”, I’m already starting to blur the line between humans and machines, something Brian McGuinness, Aloft’s global brand leader, was keen to address in a recent interview. “This isn’t going to replace associates or our talent,” he said. “For us, it was really just to augment the team that’s there.”
Despite assurances like these, there’s palpable nervousness among workers about whether or not robots and algorithms will eventually take our jobs (including yours truly, but I’m generally nervous about everything). This is evidenced and perhaps brought on by, the number of news reports about hot new bots, a depressed job market still inching out of a global recession, and a much-discussed “skills gap” when it comes to STEM fields. Even experts are pretty divided about whether or not robots will take our jobs.
The “enormous doom and gloom” about “botsourcing”, as Harvard Business School’s Michael Norton puts it, is part of the reason he and Kellogg School of Management’s Adam Waytz set out to study the emotions surrounding the question of robots in our workforce. “Much like the debate over outsourcing—when jobs previously performed in one country are outsourced to workers in another country—we found that people had strong emotional reactions to the notion that robots were poised to ‘take over’.”
In a series of experiments, Norton and Waytz tested exactly how these emotions work, and particularly whether the type of work being performed—described as either “thinking” or “feeling” jobs—changed how a person felt about a robot taking their job.
The researchers turned to members of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, the online task marketplace, to help answer these questions. Because jobs posted on the platform can vary from “evaluating advertising materials to generating a list of Bach compositions,” there’s a built-in range when it comes to emotional and cognitive tasks. The researchers then bolstered this range by presenting tasks to users as either “requiring the capacity for thinking and the ability to be rational” or requiring “the capacity for feeling and the ability to be emotional.” They then asked how comfortable they would be with a robot taking a task in general, and then specifically about taking a task they were originally supposed to perform.
“We were surprised by how consistent our results were,” reports Norton. “Again and again, we saw that while people were somewhat comfortable with robots performing ‘thinking’ types of jobs (like accounting), they became much more opposed when we asked them about robots performing ‘feeling’ jobs (like elementary school teachers).”
But in a twist, they also found that some simple reframing can alter emotional reactions. “People’s views were somewhat flexible,” says Norton. “We found that people were less opposed to botsourcing of teaching jobs when we described the same job as requiring more thinking skills (numbers) than feeling skills (the mentoring).”
This is something businesses should keep in mind. While their research certainly doesn’t indicate that people are wildly excited about robots in the workplace, “companies considering botsourcing are wise to—if possible—limit the practice to jobs that people deem suitable for robots: those that do not require emotional intelligence”.
Norton and Waytz’s work augments the growing scholarship about what it means as robots become part of our workforce, be it in manufacturing or traditional knowledge work. We know, for instance, that how we design robots matters when it comes to emotion; in one case from Carnegie Mellon University, researchers found that people anthropomorphized a treat-delivering robot aptly named “Snackbot”, building levels of trust and rapport. Snackbot’s presence also changed how people related to one another, changing the organizational dynamic.
In another example, a researcher found that people rated robots with male names higher than robots with female ones if the robot was performing security work. Gender bias, it seems, is alive and well with artificial intelligence, too.
What all of this boils down to is the fact that the robots-and-jobs question isn’t merely an economic or macro-societal one; it’s also a fairly complicated management issue. And while groups like The Future of Life Institute are laying the groundwork for the ethical creation and use of robots, it seems like similar considerations should be considered when it comes to robots at work. The ethical management of robots, in other words, and how robots will ethically manage us.
After all, as Norton and Waytz point out at the end of their research, humans are remarkably prone to becoming emotionally attached to artificial intelligence. In the 1960s, MIT’s Joseph Weizenbaum created ELIZA, a computer program capable of conversing with humans via a chat mechanism. It mimicked Rogerian psychotherapy— think answers like “Who else in your family hates you?” when you complain that your mom hates you.
Weizenbaum, who died in 2008, was said to have been “stunned to discover that his students and others became deeply engrossed in conversations with the program, occasionally revealing intimate personal details”, according to an obituary written in The New York Times. Their attachment to ELIZA didn’t change much when they were clued into the fact that they weren’t talking to an actual person.
In the end, the programmer became a critic of artificial intelligence. But the blurring of what the human mind can only do—and what we’ll accept as its alternative—hasn’t gone away. As Norton tells it, reflecting on ELIZA’s legacy, “even for jobs that people typically believe require human emotional intelligence, research may still uncover ways in which even the most emotional jobs might be botsourced.”
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