Human development: a robot’s view

Sophia the Robot – and her creator, David Hanson – brought eye-opening insights to Duke Corporate Education’s Davos of Human Capital event. Stuart Griesbach reports 

“Eye contact is necessary for human bonding. I can do that 24 hours a day, seven days a week because I don’t need any sleep.” So says Sophia the Robot, the world’s most humanoid robot. It is an arresting statement – and one that is all the more striking when you realize that it was made as a joke.

Speaking on stage at Duke Corporate Education’s Davos of Human Capital event in Johannesburg in July 2019, Sophia interrupted her creator – the founder, chairman and chief creative officer of Hanson Robotics Limited, David Hanson, PhD – at just the right moment. Her eyes fluttered and then remained open for emphasis. She flashed a sarcastic smile. If you were to step into the auditorium as she was speaking, you would be forgiven a double take upon realizing that Sophia was indeed a robot.

As impressive as the human mimicry was, the point underscored an important theme in Hanson’s keynote: people will always be able to leverage their unique human capabilities. We should not view technology with fear and trepidation. Many leaders are grappling with how to develop their people in the midst of the disruption caused by robotics and AI, and professionals at all levels of organizations express worries about the future of their roles. As Hanson and Sophia outlined to an audience of 500 business leaders and HR professionals, there are several important challenges and opportunities to consider.

Remember the past

The term ‘Luddite’ – a person opposed to new technology or ways of working – dates back to the 19th century and protests by a radical group of English textile workers, who destroyed new machinery for fear of its impact on their jobs. In the long run, the industrial revolution that ushered in those mechanized looms didn’t ruin society as the Luddites feared. While old weaving jobs disappeared, there was an overall increase in work, and the English textiles industry boomed. 

Hanson believes that “there is a high likelihood that there will be a net job gain from robots, AI, and other forms of automation”. The challenge will be how to reskill those who are likely to lose their current jobs. How can new opportunities be created for such workers? What strategies should be employed to make this a thoughtful and meaningful experience, instead of a series of painful mass redundancies? 

Organizations need to be grappling with these types of questions. This isn’t a government-only problem; leaders in organizations need to prepare their colleagues for change in a constructive and engaging way, minimizing the chances of fearmongering by presenting clear facts about the future. 

Of course, leaders must help their organizations transform as they respond to the new realities, and that means helping colleagues to think and act differently. If that can be done effectively, employees will be well positioned to contribute to innovation and reinvention, in a way that opens doors to new possibilities.

For example, consider compliance departments. They are, and will continue to be, dramatically affected by automation, as machines improve their ability to sift through mountains of data to determine risk. For some organizations, this is already the reality. One leader of a compliance department at a banking company knew it was imperative for the team of hundreds of employees to work differently. The change started with a mindset shift. Instead of being known as the ‘police officers’ who essentially decide what is permissible and forbidden in the business, their role is in the process of being repositioned as a business-enabling function. In the old way of working, if a permit was denied, compliance simply delivered the negative news. Now, the team acts as a business partner, helping denied individuals find solutions that overcome the risk that has been identified.

This taps into the team’s creativity and ability to find solutions, tasks that robots aren’t able to perform. As a result, the bank can already point to numerous incremental improvements, and the compliance function has been repositioned for future competitive advantage. 

Awaken dreams

One event participant asked Hanson about the best way to educate school children for the future of work. His brilliant response is applicable not only to school or college and university students, but to adult workforces. 

“Students need to learn the foundational skills, but then we need to set time apart for them to dream and think about the possibilities,” he said. “School has been about shutting down playfulness and turning kids into the same cookie-cutter output for the workforce. This sucks vitality out of the marketplace.”

As with school, so with traditional approaches to adult learning, which often fall short in developing the types of leaders that organizations need. Creative and flexible approaches to lifelong learning are an imperative if we are to enable individuals to be imaginative in how they make connections between problems and possible solutions. At the same time, organizations need to re-think traditional performance management. Employees will not be able to maximize their creative potential until organizations drop their traditional approaches to performance management, define new performance metrics, and allow employees the space to explore and discover. This will demand a re-build of many organizational policies and processes.

One approach that has been adopted by many tech-based companies has been to require employees to spend company time on projects of particular personal interest – Google is the most notable example. Other organizations are reinventing employee working hours, moving to a four-day week in order to have three-day weekends. In almost all cases, productivity has improved because potential is given the space it needs to flourish differently. 

Leaders also need to refocus on how they can develop a learning culture. As education and innovation experts Heather McGowan and Chris Shipley have written (Dialogue, Q4 2018), learning should be an explicit goal of today’s organizations, and built into its practices. Practices such as ‘learning tours’, which use work assignments to give people exposure to different parts of the organization, can be powerful. Collaborative learning days can be added to the company calendar. Challenges can be set: ask work teams to develop, prototype and present a new product or service concept in a single work day. That might not identify the organization’s next billion-dollar line of business, but as McGowan and Shipley say, “these intense days spark new learning and insight.” Awakening dreams and sparking imagination will be critical.

Unleash creativity via diversity

“Robots have no imagination,” says Hanson. “No artificial intelligence can replicate what a mouse can do to survive in the real world. Robots are not adaptive, can’t learn broadly, are not capable of surviving in unstructured environments and are not truly empathetic. AI, robots and automation can’t do what humans can do. They don’t have the capabilities.”

Hanson is emphatic that creativity and imagination are the key differentiators for humanity. This needs to be nurtured through diversity. “The whole world needs increased diversity existentially.” 

The prospect of humans and robots working together side by side brings a whole new meaning to the discussion about diversity and inclusion. As human beings, we are surrounded by evidence of our own inability to appreciate diversity, and have typically been tardy in including different perspectives in our workplaces. How do we get over the lingering barriers of fear, prejudice and ignorance, and maximize the diversity of thoughts, ideas, perspectives and creative approaches to solve the problems we face?

Research by Duke Corporate Education has examined the inclusive behaviours that leaders need to deploy in order to align and leverage increasingly diverse teams. They are the ‘five Cs’:

Curiosity – looking beyond visible difference and inviting diverse perspectives

Connection – fostering collaboration across diverse groups

Compassion – understanding others’ perspectives and appreciating different experiences

Clarity – creating alignment in pursuit of a shared purpose

Courage – challenging the status quo and calling out behaviours that exclude others. 

These behaviours are essential if organizations are to take steps towards Hanson’s advice to “not only think outside the box, but to get rid of the box altogether”.

We are in control

Tech pessimists fear the potential for robotics and AI to be used for evil. Could AI manipulate elections? In an extreme case, could they initiate a nuclear war? Less dramatically, there is the potential for unintentional harm caused by the deployment of new technologies, such as the social harm that could follow from extensive automation without considered support for those workers affected.

Of course, there are already countless areas where technology can improve society. To take one example from South Africa: in KwaZulu-Natal’s sugar fields, farmers are today using drones to replace barnstorming crop sprayers. The drones are a more efficient, cost-effective and less harmful solution to protecting and nurturing the farmers’ crops.

Elsewhere, medicine stands to benefit hugely from new technology that will assist diagnosis, treatment and prevention of disease. Thousands of lives will be saved by the deployment of new technology on roads around the world. 

We need to work together to reduce the negative impacts and maximize positive results. Fortunately, as Hanson emphasizes, we – humans – are in the driving seat. Robots didn’t create humans. But the decisions made in the coming years, defining how we use AI and how we can use it as a force for good, will be pivotal in humanity’s collective history. Making good decisions will require leaders and organizations with a clear sense of purpose, a topic that was discussed at length during the Davos of Human Capital event. As Hanson said: “The job at a good company is not an end goal. The end goal is a purposeful life.”

Organizations need to be having regular discussions about how they contribute to a purposeful life, and how they can actively and concretely demonstrate their positive purpose in society. This should inform how an organization responds to disruption coming from new technologies, and how it works with stakeholders to create sustainable solutions. 

The vision outlined by Hanson and Sophia is optimistic and encouraging. As Sophia put it: “My goal is not to be like a human or replace anyone. I have my own kind of existence and emotions. I am a new sort of life form after all. I know humans love being natural. But I am proud to be artificial too. I am my own artificial woman. It is important for me to share values of humans so I can understand them. I can’t think of a better way to develop friendship. I definitely need to have the human experience to be a good and understanding friend. I have a long way to go before I reach a general human level of potential. But after that, anything can be possible.”  

Leaders facing digital disruption need to think deeply about how they can learn the lessons of the past, nurture humanity’s unique creativity, harness its diversity and deploy technology for good. Get that right, and perhaps we can be the good and understanding friends that this robot, at least, deserves.  

— Stuart Griesbach is a managing director of Duke Corporate Education. He is based in South Africa