If Robots Provide Empathy, Do We Still Need Humans?

This is Part 2 of my conversation with Bent Dalager, Managing Director for Financial Services Nordic at Accenture in Copenhagen, about the role of robots in customer experience. Click here for Part 1.

It seems that this robotic seal can do as good or even a better job than nursing home staff in calming agitated dementia patients. How long till we can develop an online version that will work for agitated customers? 

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That’s a tougher challenge, for sure, as looking at a video of a cute, cuddly creature won’t solve your problem with the wrong product having been delivered, or an incomprehensible billing statement from your cell phone provider. But as robotics and artificial intelligence combine with neuroscience and psychology, it seems likely that it won’t be too many more years before automated customer service systems will be able to do at least as good a job — and often a better one — than customer service reps. Until my conversation with Bent Dalager, artificial intelligence expert at Accenture, I believed that robots were still a long way from being able to effectively mimic human empathy. But he points out in this interview (part 2 of 2; see part 1 here), huge progress is being made in giving robots an EQ (emotional quotient) that comes close to matching their already overpowering IQ (intelligence quotient).

Smart Machines Working With Less Capable Humans

In this part of our interview, Dalager says it is not just front line customer service reps who are at risk of being replaced by robots. The future for even jobs that now require years of education and experience will be one of “smart machines… working with less capable humans.” The “experience part” of customer experience, however, will still come down to human elements in some ways. Although researchers are making progress on machines that can empathize with customers, it still may be several years off before they can do it nearly as skillfully as humans. So your human customer service rep’s role may be more about calming an irate customer than solving their problem. The problem solving part will be handled in real time by the rep’s automated partner. 

What Can Humans Do Better Than Robots?

Ironically, given that robotics in business started with taking over physical tasks on assembly lines, robots are still a long way from being able to replicate the fluidity of human movement. It seems that developing empathy and ever-increasing intelligence is easier than learning to move gracefully. But even once a robot can cut your hair as effectively as a human hairdresser, there may still be a role for the hairdresser. The future for humans, says Dalager, will be in areas where we seek human connection, and particularly in areas where we want to compare ourselves to other humans. So there are 3 main areas where there seems to be a future for humans:

  • Sports. While the dividing line between the technological element and the human one is getting blurred, people do still tend to find it more exciting to see which human can perform best than to watch to machines battling it out. Even the machine on machine battles people watch (do demolition derbys still exist?) tend to have a human at the controls to make it more exciting.
  • The arts, creative and innovative jobs. Robots are starting to compose music, do art and contribute to other creative endeavors. They can create lovely work. However, as we get liberated from some of the physical and intellectual limitations we currently have, human creativity may well produce types of art and new entrepreneurial ideas that computers will be unable to “think up” given the way they learn.
  • Caring jobs that combine both the need for physical dexterity and empathy. Nursing aides, hairdressers who are also good confidantes, some grade school teachers. (Fewer teachers than we now have, as much of the teaching is currently rote learning, which won’t be necessary any more. But younger children, especially, need teachers who can provide both physical and emotional support.)

All this said, there is no question that we are in for an increasing blurring between humans and machines. And humans are already starting to endow machines with human traits. Just look at the reactions to the beating of Hitchbot. If you aren’t familiar with the Hitchbot story, watch this video:

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Here are a few of the 3,409 comments about the robot’s beating on its Facebook page:

hitchbot reactions hitchbot2 hitchbot3

What Roles Do You Think Will Be Left For Humans?

Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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