The awkward interplay of man vs machine



Automation — from both software and physical robots — is upon us. Its rise brought promises of increased efficiency and productivity. But now the tech is settling into our workplaces, we’re starting to experience the awkward interplay of man vs machine.

Novelty, anxiety, tedium and confusion fuel an uncomfortable transition. Humans and machines are struggling to interact effectively in the workplace.

What’s happening, and what does the future hold for the man vs machine issue?


The desired effect of robots

The automation promise — whether it’s from physical robots or software — is freedom from drudgery. Autonomous machines will make human jobs more satisfying, less mind-numbing. This, in turn, improves morale and drives productivity.

Plus, having fewer repetitive and tedious tasks to act as distractions will drive efficiency. The machines can complete tasks quicker, with fewer errors. Meanwhile, humans can make the best use of their time, focusing on high-value work.

Rather than man vs machine, it’s supposed to be man and machine. But how much of this promise proves reality?


An awkward reality

Unfortunately, the automation introduction hasn’t come without its hurdles. Rather, there’s a discord between humans and bots — making for an awkward ‘man vs machine’ interplay.

As more robots and automation enter the workplace, human workers face a transition era. Workplaces have not moved seamlessly from fully human to human-bot teamwork. Instead, many are finding difficulty achieving harmony between humans and bots.

Each side currently faces difficulties interacting with the other. This discomfort affects both the performance of the technology, and the happiness of employees.


Man vs machine

For humans, the awkward interplay of man vs machines comes from managing the automation entering their workplace. Automation software requires set-up, while physical robots often need baby-sitting.

Indeed, some feel that we’re heading for a new era of automated tedium. Now, instead of completing a task, you watch a machine do it. Plus, when the technology works well, fewer tasks need human attention. As a result, the ‘new’ human jobs can soon become just as repetitive and tedious as the ones the machines complete.

Or, worse still, you’re robbed of the simple pleasure of tasks that give your mind a break. You can’t switch off and still get the task done. Instead, you’re forced to expend mental effort with no reprieve.  A fear that a machine will soon absorb the job you have left punctuates this shift in workload.

Customers struggle with the man vs machine issue too. In the case of physical robots, many customers find themselves startled by their presence. For example, Walmart has reported that some customers avoid their robot fleet. Others film the machines, and some even attack them. Elsewhere, chatbots and automated messages cause upset when they malfunction.


Machine vs man

On the other side of the man vs machine issues, meanwhile, machines aren’t faring any better. They are finding difficulties in interacting with humans. An issue that their engineers are struggling to resolve.

For example, physical robots need to announce their presence. Having a robot sneak up on you isn’t going to help the awkward interplay. But how should they announce themselves? If they speak, it could be misunderstood as inviting conversation. A horn, meanwhile, might be too jarring for humans.

Then, there’s the question of tone of voice for machines that are capable of conversation. A slip-up hurts the business and the bot. But more than this, it can widely upset the humans attempting to interact with the machine.


The future of man vs machine

As they are, the awkward interactions of man vs machine work to create resentment towards the technology. Made to feel uncomfortable around the current workplace bots, people may resist further automation and future AI. If left unchecked, it’s possible that this distrust will lead to an AI winter.

However, this is a worst-case scenario. As robots and automation become more familiar, the novelty and fear will likely wear off. People will learn to interact with machines in the same way they learned to talk to Furby or care about Tamagotchi.

But it’s not enough to force people to get used to it. The future of the man vs machine issue depends on us ironing out the creases that cause discord. In other words, companies need to tailor their automation use so that it improves working life.


A helping push

As it stands, changing workloads and awkward interactions make automation acceptance difficult. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

For a start, people need time to adapt to the new workload distribution. The novelty of encountering robots needs to wear off. As teams grow used to automation and robots, the technology becomes less unnerving and so easier to interact with.

Second, it’s imperative to address automation anxiety before, during and after deployment. Particularly if the technology is consuming a large part of a team member’s role in the business. People are fearful of losing their jobs to bots. So, show them that they have nothing to fear.

Finally, avoid over-reliance on automation. When given tasks it can do, automation shines. But it’s not a golden hammer. Trying to automate everything hurts rather than helps. This is because instead of taking one or two boring challenges, over-reliance creates machines that need baby-sitting. Teams can’t get on with their high-value work, because they’re putting out the fires left by an ill-fitted robot.


It’s still early days

The awkward interplay of man vs machine is largely due to the novelty of the technology. It’s still early days and finding the automation balance can take time.

Maybe one day, the workplace will just be for machines. For now, we’re entering a period of teamwork between man and machine. Now is the time to address automation anxiety, and to find the balance between machine efficiency, and human flexibility.


Useful links

Why we should embrace automation disruption

Robots taking our jobs: the four ‘D’s to factor in

The golden hammer approach to automation