The fourth industrial revolution is almost upon us: Bring on the robotics, but with roboethics

Hamish Pringle is strategic advisor at 23red, former IPA director general, and has had five successful business books published. With an agency career spanning 26 years, he’s worked on more than 50 brands.

Artificial intelligence as depicted in Ex Machina

There’s been no shortage of scare stories as a result of the introduction of robots.

World Economic Forum founder Klaus Schwab and managing board member Richard Samans published their report 'The Future of Jobs' in January. They estimate that a net five million individuals will lose their jobs in this ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ by 2020, across 15 major developed and emerging economies.

Deloitte is much more pessimistic, forecasting 11 million at high risk from automation in the UK alone by 2036. They anticipate the vulnerable sectors, but are not so forthcoming about the numbers of new jobs likely to be created.

While the disruption likely to be caused by the full-scale introduction of robotics won’t be with us for a decade, there are some sectors where it may happen sooner. The government has stated its intention for the UK to become a world leader in driverless technology and the Department for Transport will complete a review of current legislation by the summer of 2017. Trials of driverless cars started during 2015 in the UK and Google hopes to have its product on the roads by 2020.

In this context a new lobby group, ‘The Automated Driving Insurance Group’, has been established by the Association of British Insurers. This entity is examining the implications of driverless cars for the insurance industry. Some 94 per cent of road accidents are caused by human error, so the arrival of automated vehicles should lead to a massive improvement in road safety. Owners of driverless vehicles may be looking forward to far fewer accidents, less hassle with insurance claims and lower premiums.

However the group’s eleven founder members, including, Admiral, Ageas, Allianz, Aviva, AXA, Co-operative Insurance, Covea, Direct Line Group, LV, Zurich and the Lloyd’s Market are facing fundamental challenges to their business model. No doubt some of their number will seek to delay these new technologies to protect the status quo. It’ll be a re-run of Uber v black cabs, and the winning brands will be those which embrace this future.

The motor industry and many others are already grappling with the issues presented by these new automation technologies and the field of ‘roboethics’ is emerging from the specialist fields of robot design and construction, into the mainstream. While government representatives at Davos debated the ethics of using robots in war, other ethical issues will arise much closer to home, and surprisingly soon.

Here are just two of the 15 points from ‘A Code of Ethics for the Human-Robot Interaction Profession’ developed by Laurel D. Riek and Don Howard and published in 2014.

  • The tendency for humans to form attachments to and anthropomorphize robots should be carefully considered during design.
  • Humanoid morphology and functionality is permitted only to the extent necessary for the achievement of reasonable design objectives.

Thinking in terms of the high street, it’s clear that ethical dilemmas that will have to be faced. And we shouldn’t be lulled into a false sense of security by the rather clunky robots being trialled in-store now. In 2002 the futuristic technologies of ‘Minority Report’ seemed far away, and human-like robots from ‘Ex-Machina’ will soon be with us.

Here’s some examples of ethical dilemmas.

Should retailers commission sales assistant robots which reflect the appearance of their customer demographic?

Should these robots be programmed to reflect an individual’s body language and speech patterns?

Should they make flattering remarks?

How far should the robot be able to delve into the customer’s social and financial profile in order to increase the chances of making a sale?

Clearly an unfettered approach to robotics could lead to a very one-sided interaction between the average customer and a brand representative with super-human resources.

The ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ is going to offer opportunities for those brands who see how addressing these ethical issues could create a competitive advantage. It’s analogous to the early days of sustainability when what looked like a threat turned out to be a win-win with enhanced consumer appeal and lower costs.

If a brand can tackle these thorny ethical issues and build a trusting interaction between its robots and its customers, then think of the customer benefits in a myriad of areas. A receptionist who recalls the person’s name from last time and produces their visitor pass far more quickly. A waiter who remembers which guest ordered what, and then keeps watching in case further service is required. A sales assistant who knows what the customer bought last time and suggests new season’s items likely to appeal. A financial advisor who’s so knowledgeable and trustworthy that cross-selling becomes a reality.

Roll on robotics, but with roboethics.

Hamish Pringle is strategic advisor to 23red. He tweets @hamishpringle

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