robot friend
PHOTO: Kai Schreiber

He may not be as smart as Watson or Lieutenant Commander Data. He's definitely not as strong as the new FANUC M-2000iA/1700L that can lift 1.7 tons — the equivalent of two small cars or 24 people. And he is certainly not as pretty as the robot “clones” on Orphan Black.

Yet G.U.N.T.H.E.R. is my favorite robot ever. 

Little did I know though that my favorite robot would be the precursor of the current AI robotic automation wave.

Danger, Will Robinson

The 60s TV series Lost in Space featured a cast member that aided and protected teenager Will Robinson and his family on their comical misadventures in space. Officially designated as G.U.N.T.H.E.R., a B-9 Class M-3 General Utility Non-Theorizing Environmental Robot, he was addressed simply as “Robot.”  

Robot had superhuman strength, futuristic weaponry and extensive knowledge programming, but what made me a fan was his frequent improbable displays of human characteristics that bordered on empathy.  

As life imitates art, so Robot paved the way for the wave of AI robotic automation we're witnessing today. That wave is impacting the very foundation of some key industries, and the way in which knowledge work is accomplished.   

Robots That Work

The first wave of industrial automation was based on mechanization, the second on the use of microprocessors in industrial applications, and the third wave relies on ”extreme information availability, cyber-physical systems and data analytics.” 

Now with the “fourth industrial revolution,” factory automation is seeing new robots that are adaptable, flexible and connected, working alongside us on the factory floor. 

Connected manufacturing is critical to smart factories and to ultimately realizing the vision of the IoT (Internet of Things). Companies like GE are already using data from the factory floor and from sensors on jet engines, gas turbines and MRI scanners — collected and analyzed using GE’s cloud-based Predix platform — to make “things” run better. 

But perhaps the true breakthrough will be the ability to connect thinking machines with humans to support the knowledge worker in their tasks.

Robots That Think

David Gelernter wrote in a recent Wall Street Journal article about AlphaGo, the Artificial Intelligence (AI) software built by Google that easily defeated the world’s best player of the Asian board game Go in a five-game match, requiring mastery of strategy and tactics. The victory signalled what  AI robots might  accomplish now and in the future.

Gelernter suggested we imagine a fleet of AI apps with IQs of 150 or more that help to manage life. AI apps could read email and write responses, log on to 19 different systems using 19 different ridiculous passwords. “Living without them will seem, in retrospect, like driving with no springs or shocks.”

To me this sounds a lot like the abilities adaptive case management platforms have already developed to help knowledge workers. In my article from five years ago, How Adaptive Case Management Helped Fix my Car, I shared real world examples from the Insurance industry. This is much-needed technology that in effect collaborates with humans to provide content, process guidelines and context to improve how work gets done. 

But now we hear that Your Next Insurance Agent Will be a Robot. While technically not an insurance company, Cambridge-based startup Insurify gives buyers help to sort through the maze of competing companies, their premiums and all those coverage plans. “Think of it as Travelocity for auto insurance.” To do it, Insurify uses a robot — not the humanoid kind, but smart software instead. 

Should we be pleased or worried?

Robots That Threaten

The concern about smart robots replacing humans through automation is long standing. 

Twilight Zone's iconic episode “The Brain Center at Whipple’s”  features Wallace V. Whipple, the owner of a vast manufacturing corporation who decides to upgrade his plant to increase output by installing a machine named the "X109B14 modified transistorized totally automated machine." Layoffs ensue and Whipple turns a deaf ear to former employees until the board of directors replace him with a robot.

Experts predict robots will take over 30 percent of our jobs by 2025. Current research indicates that, as cost barriers fall, workplaces will naturally gravitate towards teams of humans and robots working together to accomplish goals, each assigned the tasks for which they are ideally suited. 

I welcome these improvements. 

For example, how cool is Kiva, as described in Supply Chains Run on Brains, Heart and Soul. These squat orange robots zoom around the shelves at Amazon fulfillment centers, picking up goods and carrying them to their human co-workers. Collapsing what used to take hours of walking into mere minutes, speeding your same day delivery on its way.  

And what about the possibilities for the energy sector with automated drones that fly pipeline reconnaissance for early alerts to human repair teams, avoiding lengthy shutdowns. 

But apparently the idea of robots that threaten to replace human jobs continues to cause us angst. Robot maker Boston Dynamics has just been put up for sale by Google. Reports say that the firm failed to integrate with the wider Google workforce, but its robots also sparked concern about negative press. “There’s excitement from the tech press, but we’re also starting to see some negative threads about it being terrifying, ready to take humans’ jobs.”

Robots That Help

The real point is that whether they replace or enhance their human counterparts, thinking robots are not enough. What we need are robots like the long ago one in Lost in Space who help their humans with logic, humor and empathy. 

Robot was truly the ancestor to today’s Baxter robots, and he was a portend of the perfect example of AI automation for knowledge workers. The future of adaptive case management perhaps.

In one of my favorite TED talks, Why We Will Rely on Robots, Rodney Brooks introduces us to a Baxter robot that can understand that humans are different and must be treated accordingly. 

Brooks builds adaptive robots based on biological principles of movement and reasoning. The goal: a robot who can figure things out; and one that can collaborate to help humans. For example, Baxter interacts with his “puny human” carefully. “It doesn't hurt. It feels the force, understands that Chris is there and doesn't push through him and hurt him.”

Brooks contests the idea that robots will simply replace people on the job, saying “In fact, they can become our essential collaborators, freeing us up to spend time on less mundane and mechanical challenges.” We are already seeing amazing results in health care from medical robots that augment the surgeon’s potential with superhuman precision and repeatability, like the tele-operated da Vinci® Surgical System. 

Herein lies the essential benefit of adaptive case management. We know that it can put data in context and orchestrate work to help knowledge workers make better decisions. Why not an AI robotic extension to help act on those decisions for better outcomes?  

So perhaps the next Baxter robot you meet will be called “CaseMan.” Be sure to shake his hand and maybe even hug him. He’s there to aid, protect and help you.