ASIMO robot

Have you ever had that moment when suddenly the things that you write, talk and worry about are happening to you? Surely they always happen to other people?

I have been writing about artificial intelligence and my worry that business leaders don’t think they need to understand it – it will only affect future generations. My white paper, March of the robots … into the boardroom, confirmed that the technology lethargy is worse even than I thought.

Now, I find that technology is moving faster than even the experts had thought possible and is encroaching on areas of skills that had been thought of as exclusively human.   So what has happened and will this finally mean bosses wake up and start thinking about the implications for their businesses – both as opportunities and risk?

In my blogs, When will a robot be your boss? and The future of the legal profession – is there one? I have highlighted that intelligent automation is not just affecting jobs that traditionally can be automated. We are now all used now to the concept of factories where two or three people supervise rows of smart robots; we’re even getting used to the idea of robots supervising smart robots.


It is only now beginning to dawn on the public – if not yet with political leaders – that jobs we think of as ‘professional jobs’ are also being eroded to technology. There is an estimate by Deloitte that about 31,000 legal jobs have been lost to technology – these include legal secretaries and junior lawyers. Perhaps more worrying is their prediction that another 39% of jobs are at “high risk” of elimination over the next two decades.

However, at the risk of upsetting all the lawyers I know you could say that these jobs are going as a result of a combination of intelligent automation and big data. Law is all about the study and manipulation of big data.

The received wisdom about intelligent automation is that the jobs that will survive are ones that require emotional intelligence, empathy, experience and the ability to learn. The received wisdom is also that these are things that are unique to humans.

Yet even that truth is beginning to be undermined.

This is what rocked the world – and I hope business leaders – this March. A major milestone was reached when Google’s Deep Mind computer beat the world Go champion. This was not supposed to happen for at least 10 years. The significance of this is that Go is such a complex game that it is not possible to do what can be done with chess, which is to programme every possible combinations of moves.

Someone calculated that there are more moves in Go than there are stars in the universe. What the Deep Mind computer was doing was learning as it went along. It was doing what human’s do, learning things and learning from them; and it was learning without human intervention.

What Deep Mind has done has caused turmoil in the world of Artificial Intelligence because it has pulled forward the date when artificial intelligence becomes decoupled from human intelligence.

But even more concerning for those of us who coach and mentor was a BBC feature from the ICT Mixed Reality Lab at USC researching how humans react with virtual humans. Their aim is to improve the persuasiveness of Artificial Intelligence so that humans can be better guided by robots in decision making. The project is looking at how robots could become coaches, therapists and friends for humans. There was some work that IBM did back in the 70’s with doctors researching people being interviewed by a machine about their symptoms. Far from hating the process people felt that the machines were better than doctors because they had plenty of time, appeared to listen and were very polite! So people are not averse to replacing humans with machines that seem to do a better job.

At the moment the technology is pretty clunky, but you can see how this could turn into something very much closer to reality. People have Facebook friends that they never meet but yet those people are very real to them. Could robots be friends for the lonely and would that be a good or a bad thing?

As a mentor, should I worry that my clients will forsake me for a robot? Well not yet, but the day may come. Let’s hope business leaders wake up to what is happening before they too are redundant.