When we hear about how artificial intelligence and robots will play an increasingly important part in our future across a wide range of human activity, it’s understandable that some of us conjure up Hollywood inspired images of humanlike, physical robots which have the ability to learn and to be like us, along with all our human foibles. Often these Hollywood movies are cautionary tales. Films like Ex Machina and I, Robot are recent examples which come to mind.
Science fiction literature and entertainment and the development of science and technology are often not that far apart and the future may be closer than we think.
At the recent Global Leadership Practices program to China, a small group of senior public servants from the Australian public service had the opportunity to visit Xiaoi, a Shanghai-based company and China’s leading developer in AI, virtual customer assistant (VCA) and virtual personal assistant (VPA) robots or “bots”. A bot is a term used to describe any intelligent system (or machine intelligence) that can work autonomously. Siri on your iPhone is an example of a simple, early version of a virtual VPA bot.
Enabled by high-end voice recognition, intelligent dialog, machine learning and semantic technologies underpinned by extensive domain based knowledge bases, VCA bots are quickly replacing or complementing traditional call centres and other forms of information brokers and information-based service providers with lower cost, consistent, high accuracy, high quality multi-channel (phone/app/social media, etc) customer engagement and service delivery capabilities. Easily scalable to meet peaks in customer demand, virtual VCA bots are becoming a game changer in the banking, telecommunications and finance sectors as well as in digital government.
The “bot economy” is upon us and, according to a recent 2016 analysis by Citigroup, is growing faster than the “app economy” did in its early days.
The advent of virtual bots and the potential of the fully “digital workplace” are not just technological matters. They are also matters of leadership as the economic challenges, ethical dilemmas and workforce decisions that the bot economy will surface will also be about the profound choices we make. Consider:
- Choices in relation to the kinds of work we choose to do and what gets done by bots;
- Choices in relation to the nature and quality of our interactions with the public service and other institutions that have been designed to serve us;
- Choices in relation to how we interact with each other as human beings and how we get things done as communities; and
- Choices in relation to the value we place in human experience and learning.
Like most technologies, it is difficult to judge bots as either good or bad. But like most technologies, the use of bots will likely have positive, negative and indifferent consequences depending on many variables. The consequence of technology is rarely value neutral.
Leadership, however, is a key variable and value in human endeavour, and as leaders we do need to consider how we prepare the people and organisations we lead to be able to shape and optimise the benefits of bots and other “smart agents” while being able to manage their consequences on real people.
Preparing for a future (which may already be here) is a task of leadership. Here, scenario planning, war gaming or future-focused deep dives and hypotheticals could all be handy approaches to sensitise our organisations to possible futures.
But perhaps more importantly, we also need to concern ourselves with ensuring that we have workforces and organisations that have the capacity to meet technologically driven futures based on what actually makes us human.
This means preparing for the future by shaping our organisations to better meet a higher purpose, or by anchoring our organisations in sound ethical foundations; or by developing new capabilities and skill sets with our people, or by building value that is based on meaningful and strong interpersonal as well as inter-institutional relationships or by delivering real value that actually contributes in some way to the wellbeing of our clients, customers, employees and citizens.
These are acts of human leadership not technology, and they are concerned not with any prediction of the future but with strengthening our human propensity and capacity to meet any future, including an increasingly complex and exciting (bot-filled) one, confidently.