The advent of human-robot collaboration and interactions in organizational environments

In our recent article on the relationship between humans and technology in an organization, we briefly described a dystopian scenario where increasingly intelligent machines would not only replace humans in specific organizational processes, but also control entire organizations.

This terrifying scenario finds its roots in a concept commonly known as intelligence explosion or technological singularity. It assumes that once AI with human-level intelligence is created, it can then improve itself until it surpasses our own intelligence, becoming what some call a superintelligence.


In 1965 British mathematician I.J. Good described an ultraintelligent machine “as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an ‘intelligence explosion,’ and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control.”

One could argue that with the latest advances in AI we’re quickly approaching this doomsday scenario. Opinions are divided on the extent to which machines could fully replace humans. Is our intelligence the sole factor differentiating us from machines?

The AIs we build today are highly specialized in very narrow tasks such as classifying images or playing Go. For reasons that are described in this excellent article by François Cholet, neither an intelligent explosion is likely to happen soon, nor can we expect AIs to perform new tasks outside their scope just by increasing their brain power.

What differentiates humans from machines?

Getting back to an organizational context, let’s analyze a test we’ve developed internally at metriq. We have just created a marketing automation robot called Jean-Maurice (aka JM). So far, JM has been excellent at performing marketing tasks such as sending emails, segmenting a client subscriber list and making content recommendations based on readers’ interests.

JM has saved us and our clients a lot of time over the past few months. As a result, we started wondering if we could extend JM’s job description.

The goal was for JM to replace me, Mauricio, in content marketing tasks so I could free up more time to do client-facing work (something JM still struggles to do as he doesn’t have a face or the ability to understand complex conversations about data). Here are the questions we asked ourselves before replacing me by JM:

  1. Could JM develop the awareness necessary to write an article where it questions its own role like I do in this article?
  2. In producing content, is JM able to add a link of this same article back to itself like I did above?
  3. Could JM evaluate the performance of past articles, and without any human intervention choose to post content via other mediums such as a podcast?
  4. Could JM recognize the importance of sales and decide to autonomously start working on client-facing tasks?
  5. Could JM understand that in order to do client-facing work, it needs to acquire new skills or present itself as human?

The answers to these questions are in fact what expose the current differences between humans and machines. One could argue that JM could perform some of the tasks above if it was programmed to do so, but it would never be able to evolve from point 1 to point 5 independently. That would perhaps require a different type of intelligence or maybe even something more than intelligence such as self-awareness.

Intelligence is the ability to recognize, sense and adapt to an environment. It includes the ability to learn from experience, to reason and to take a course of action. Unsurprisingly, these are the factors we account for in how we approach the development of our robots, albeit in a narrow scope.

What we still are not able to do when creating our robots is make them conscious or self-aware insofar as they would have original thoughts, independent from what was originally programmed. Herein lies the fundamental difference between humans and robots. This is what guarantees our current uniqueness and advantage over artificial intelligence..

Taking the robot out of the human

“What I’m more worried about, in a foreseeable future, is not computers taking over the world. I’m more worried about misuse of AI.” Yoshua Bengio

When any new technology is introduced, there are upsides and downsides. Ultimately it is our decision as humans to decide how to make the benefits outweigh the costs.

In that sense, we should not see the advent of AI as the final threat to our existence, but instead as part of our evolution. We should see AIs as part of the organizational fabric, not as gods, nor as slaves, but as an extension of ourselves or our capacity to work. Something Berkeley robotics professor Ken Goldberg calls multiplicity — diverse groups of people and machines working together to solve problems. Ultimately, it’s not about replacing people with robots, but rather using robots to perform repetitive and predictable tasks, so people can get back to doing what they are good at.

And what are humans naturally good at? In summary, at everything that JM, our marketing robot, cannot do. Humans have the ability to be creative, extend the boundaries of what is possible, develop a sense humor, have empathy, be self-critical, think about the future and decide to change. It may seem paradoxical, but the increasing use of artificial intelligence technology can actually make us more human.

In our next article, we will begin exploring the human needs behind automation. We’ll show you how to identify a process’s stakeholders, its users and their interactions. You will also start to see how AI can be used to eliminate frictions and frustrations in a user journey.

Want to learn more about how to transform your organization with artificial intelligence? Download our guide “Modern Digital Transformation”.