Joseph Aoun, Julie Shah, Melonee Wise
Justin Saglio

Future of Work

Want to robot-proof your job? Here are some tips from experts in the field.

We must figure out how to work with robots, but it’s not going to be easy.

Jun 4, 2018

Despite ominous videos of stair-traversing and door-opening robots, machines are not poised for imminent takeover. However, automation is rapidly becoming more capable, and future careers will rely heavily on robot input. Three experts on AI, robotics, and education addressed the future of human-robot workplace relationships onstage at MIT Technology Review’s EmTech Next conference in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on Monday.

Machine workers can now figure out how to do things like assist nurses on a busy hospital floor and pick items in a packed warehouse, for instance. But as this new technology is deployed in the workplace, we must develop better ways for human workers to interact with the machines, the experts stressed.

Julie Shah, who leads the Interactive Robotics Group at MIT, said that we’re “quite limited” in how we use robots today, noting that while Amazon uses robots in its warehouses, they are in a physically separate space, and assembly-line robots in auto plants work alongside people but not interdependently.

As Shah pointed out, we’re great at working in human teams—on a soccer field, in an operating room, or in a moving truck—but even that takes practice. To coordinate with others that way, a person (or a robot, for that matter) needs to be able to infer what someone else is thinking, anticipate the other’s next moves, and make quick adjustments when things don’t go according to plan.

Shah is working on making this possible with robots; she showed an example from her lab, where researchers spent years working with a Boston hospital to understand how nurses on a labor floor make decisions about patients. The researchers used the data to help robots understand this workflow. The robots could then read a whiteboard of patient information to make specific suggestions about, say, which patient may need a cesarean section and which nurse should attend to her. 

Yet while this may sound helpful in theory—and certainly looks it in a video Shah showed, with nurses asking a mobile robot “What’s a good decision?” and getting immediate responses—we still have a really hard time figuring out how to work with robots, even when they work well.

That’s because we’re used to collaborating with other people, but robots, Shah said, “are essentially alien to us.” Working together could yield benefits, but only if we can figure out the appropriate mental models.

Melonee Wise, CEO of Fetch Robotics and a 2015 MIT Technology Review Innovator under 35, said it will be important for us to figure out what work robots simply aren’t suited for. Some highly choreographed tasks—like screwing parts together, for instance—are not practical, she said.

Teaching robots to replicate a task by showing them how to do it is gaining prominence among robotic researchers, but Wise said that is not always possible. (Try showing a robot how to flip a pancake and you’ll see how well that works.)

Concerned that your job might be reassigned to a machine in the not-so-distant future? Here are some tips to help you avoid this fate—and learn how to coexist with your future robotic colleagues.

Keep learning: Joseph Aoun, the president of Northeastern University and author of Robot Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, thinks that continuing to learn over time will be “essential” for humans as AI changes the workplace. He also advocates experiential education, such as sending students on long-term internships where they can do creative work and research.

Focus on your strengths: Aoun also notes that people are good at being creative and entrepreneurial, working in teams, and understanding issues from different perspectives.

Learn how to work together: Shah’s research has found that people have issues working with robots—even when the robot works just fine. They tend to do things like decouple their work from the robot and hoard work for themselves. This can make tasks less efficient overall, which isn’t helpful for humans or robots.