Re-imagining the man-machine handshake

Man-machine collaboration in the digital era calls for new actions to be done in a different and innovative manner, and businesses need to understand how their people can effectively augment machines to enhance organisation performance

Updated: Jun 25, 2019 10:44:14 AM UTC
Image: Shutterstock

A little more than three decades ago, the invincible world chess champion Gary Kasparov surrendered in defeat to IBM’s Deep Blue. The world may have sat up in shock, but Kasparov had a far more positive perspective. Instead of viewing Deep Blue as competition, he keenly explored how man and machine could collaborate to play. And so ‘Advanced Chess’ or ‘Cyborg Chess’ was born. Chess players and computers joined hands to elevate standards of play to much higher levels. Thought processes of strong human chess players and computers came together brilliantly to elevate tactical play and strategic thinking for near ’blunder free’ games.

Certainly, it is a lesson worth emulating in business today. For the business landscape is not made of dark fiction where artificial intelligence (AI) and cognitive technologies are the bad guys out to get humans. Everyday intelligent technologies collaborate with brilliant minds to co-create smart living.

Collaboration in a distributed system of excellence
Never before has technology been so responsive to human minds, and vice versa. AI has radically changed the way work gets done and who does so. But it is increasingly evident that game-changing impact will be achieved only when technology complements and augments human capabilities.

When man and machine symbiotically contribute in strategy and problem-solving, collaborative autonomy ensues—just as it happens with natural organisms in their ecosystems. A 2015 survey of airline pilots reported that they spent just seven minutes manually flying the plane—automated systems did the rest. Yet, these seven minutes are the critical ones that call for the highest levels of decision-making capabilities. Similarly, the thousand-page algorithm that UPS uses to route their delivery trucks was created by the discerning human mind.

The truth is that edge technologies and more data, by themselves cannot be guarantors of better outcomes. They need human partners to enhance performance and competitive advantage. Technology sharpens human skills and the mind’s unfathomable uniqueness. This, in turn, decodes insights from data to create even better technology. It is more than a handshake—it is an intertwined DNA of excellence.

Businesses must leverage the advantage of such collaboration. They need to understand how their people can effectively augment machines to enhance organisation performance. This includes redesigning business processes to enable the partnership.

Putting collaborative intelligence to work
Integrating human expertise and machine efficiency calls for crowdsourced efforts. People need to assist technology and vice versa.

Humans must direct their efforts to train machines to efficiently and sustainably perform work they are designed for. They also need to sensitise systems to interact with a diverse demography of humans. Machine learning trainer roles will thus be in great demand over the next few years.

This is how Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana are trained to develop the right personalities that truly mirror their company brand identities. Koko (a venture of the MIT Media Lab) is reported to have developed technology to enable AI assistants be more human in engaging with users. This technology helps the assistants to probe deeper into users’ issues and offer newer perspectives.

Explaining machine behaviour to non-expert users is another important need. Perceptions on the outcomes of cognitive technologies swing wildly—because the analytic process to derive insights are largely opaque. Humans need to create engaged awareness to ensure responsible use of machines. This is even more critical in evidence-based domains such as law and medicine. ‘Explainer’ roles will assume centerstage positions—especially in regulated and consumer-facing industries. It is estimated that about 75,000 new jobs will have to be created to administer EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) requirements.

Another important role that will be in demand is that of a ‘sustainer’. Sustainers will work relentlessly to ensure that machines function safely and responsibly—besides efficiently. More important, they will be the gatekeepers to ethical use of machines to protect data and privacy.

Skills for trainers, explainers and sustainers are very niche—they combine the best of technical, functional, domain and behavioral capabilities. The right people will be pivotal to ensure that we have smart machines that amplify human cognitive strengths, while simultaneously freeing their time and effort to focus on higher-level tasks. This is how Hyundai has taken the co-bot concept to the next level. Exoskeletons, which are wearable robotic devices, adapt to industrial workers in real time to enable them work with significantly enhanced endurance and strength.

Man-machine collaboration in the digital era calls for new actions to be done in a different and innovative manner. Relevant stakeholders must envision how they will collaborate with technology to achieve their prioritised objectives. Organisations should strategise and execute on plans to scale and sustain outcomes. Processes will need to be aligned to achieve intelligent collaboration. Call it gaining the first mover advantage, or establishing leadership in collaborative intelligence—the trophy will go to businesses that transform their workforce, operations, markets and industries in an integrated and seamless manner.

The author is MD and CEO of Randstad India.

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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