In some restaurants, robots have replaced waitstaff, and they serve patrons food cooked by robotic chefs. BuzzFeed now uses artificial intelligence (AI) to generate some of its online quizzes. The seemingly sudden rise of ChatGPT, an AI tool that’s capable of generating text based on written prompts, has highlighted a revolution that’s been underway for at least two decades.
What made it feel so different this time around was that ChatGPT seems like such a leap into the future. The public had little idea that the tech was so advanced and was caught off guard by its capabilities. So, for your next big hire, should you go for a human or a robot? We look at the pros and cons of robots and AI in the workplace and discuss when humans might be preferable to machines.
The pros of using robots and AI in the workplace
Employers may welcome the following benefits of working with robot co-workers:
- Robots work even harder than you. Machines can put more time and energy into your business than you can, and they won’t complain about it.
- You don’t need to pay robots wages. You won’t have to keep salaries in line with inflation; in fact, there will be no more wages, period.
- They never get distracted. Robots keep on going, stopping only when instructed. They don’t take vacations, ask for bereavement leave or drop tools mid-job because of family commitments.
- They’re not subject to employment law. Robots have no employment rights to violate, so they’ll never take you to court over an alleged unfair dismissal.
- You can put them in dangerous places. You can use robots and other devices in hazardous environments that pose a genuine risk of injury or death to humans.
- Robots don’t steal from you. They have no material wants or needs. They won’t quit and take your client database over to a competitor. And they never undercharge for restaurant meals and pocket the difference.
- Robots don’t harbor resentment. Nothing drags down a workplace like a moody, uncooperative co-worker. Technology helps employees work faster and better. And robots don’t need you to hire a chief happiness officer to keep them engaged.
- You don’t need to motivate them. Robots always have energy to work. You never have to spend time inspiring them.
- Robots learn fast. Download all available knowledge on a particular subject into your own generative AI model. With a bit of training, it will become a subject-matter expert far faster than a human ever could.
- They follow orders. Give robots a set of instructions, and they follow it to the letter. They do what you want in the way you want it done.
- Robots can spot things you and others miss. Tell robots the dimensions and other characteristics of your products as they roll off the production line, and they will spot inconsistencies and flaws faster and more accurately than even the most sharp-eyed co-worker could.
- Robots see the bigger picture, and you can talk to them. When connected to your apps and other machinery, robots identify bottlenecks and inefficiencies by analyzing data from across your business in real time. Some AI programs even talk to you about each issue and come up with solutions to problems you might not have considered.
- They inform business decision-making. Beyond the walled garden of your customer relationship management system or enterprise resource planning (ERP) software are giant databases full of unstructured, seemingly random information. The beauty of AI is that it can make sense of all this data and try to put it into context for you. For example, you can use tech to predict fashion trends for the coming season or to tell you when equipment needs servicing.
About 80 percent of U.S. HR teams use artificial intelligence to automate at least one HR process, according to SHRM. This includes talent acquisition, onboarding and offboarding, and employee performance management.
The cons of using robots and AI in the workplace
Clearly, there are many advantages to using robots. But can machines also let you down? Here are some drawbacks to consider:
- Customization is expensive. You’ll have to pay steep developer fees for a customized solution if off-the-shelf robotic, automation or AI products are not suitable for your business. And every time something goes wrong, you’ll pay to make it right.
- Robots cost money every month. No wages are just half the story; you also pay monthly for access to off-the-shelf software. Pricing increases with the number of human users and the features they access.
- Robots work from scripts. If you tell tech to do something and you’re not precise enough in your instructions, you won’t get the results you want. And it’s up to you to figure out you’re getting the wrong results, because the machine won’t tell you.
- Robots still make mistakes even if you give them the right scripts. AI sometimes “hallucinates,” or makes things up. Even if you give it the right learning materials and the right instructions, AI still comes to the wrong conclusions more often than you’d want. Yet it sounds confident even when it’s wrong. The probability of error increases if you let AI search the internet for answers.
- They lack creativity. AI output may seem genuinely creative, but it’s not — all it does is produce algorithm-generated sequences of existing concepts in its training data. It’s unable to add anything truly original to the discovery process.
- Employees are suspicious of machines. Your co-workers may not like the cold logic of a machine, especially if they feel that they might be replaced by AI down the line. AI just can’t authentically reassure, motivate or empower employees.
- Customers are suspicious of machines, too. If you farm out support to machines, what message does that send to clients who value the human touch? Customers might dislike chatbots and other AI methods and demand to speak with people.
- They’re a potential security vulnerability. If a robot or other piece of machinery you use connects to your IT network, this is a potential way for cybercriminals to access your system. Such individuals could not only hold your data for ransom but also disable apps and machines required for business.
- Robots need constant maintenance and updates. To stay compliant in areas you designate to robots (like handling sensitive data), you need to update your tech every time regulations change. This could be costly, depending on the complexity of the reprogramming and how often regulations change.
- They make humans lazy. If you rely on robots and AI for nearly everything, you slowly de-skill yourself and your people. What happens when a robot breaks down for a prolonged period and customers need to be served and staff needs to be paid?
As we reported in our review of Five9 call center software, AI can now analyze live spoken conversations that customer service reps have with clients. During the call, AI gives reps on-screen contextual prompts to help them achieve a one-call solution. Many of the chatbots we speak to online that seem human are, in fact, AI.
When businesses should hire human employees
Robots, automation software and AI can contribute greatly to small businesses. There’s always great excitement with the emergence of new technology, and that enthusiasm is often accompanied by an equal level of confusion over how and when it should be used.
Let’s consider the issue from the perspectives of three stakeholders: customers, staff and senior management.
How replaceable is the human touch to customers?
If you can reduce your customer support team of 10 down to two using AI and automation — without harming the customer experience — that seems like a good investment. It’s even better if new tech can help customers manage their own accounts and answer their questions online.
But would leaving everything to tech be viable? It wouldn’t be for people-focused businesses such as spas and salons. We may go to a restaurant and think the food is great, but if the waitstaff are surly and plates are slow to come out, we probably won’t go there again. Who really wants soulless interaction with robot waiters and the cook-by-numbers functionality of a robot chef?
Are robots the right answer for customer-facing businesses? They might not be, especially since tech doesn’t have the charm and likability of frontline staff. If a business finds that its savings are eclipsed by the drop in sales, hiring humans is the better bet.
Will employees follow robot orders?
Few sales reps will mourn the death of paperwork. Automating repetitive and tedious tasks can greatly enhance the work experience.
That’s true of hands-on staff as well. Just ask a surveyor whether they want to carry out structural analysis tasks in the hazardous area of a building themselves or if they’d prefer an AI-powered drone to do it instead. A recent McKinsey survey found that about 60 percent of all manufacturing activities could be automated.
It’s harder to imagine co-workers reacting well to an AI-powered manager making decisions on an employee’s future career prospects, their level of performance or working conditions. Moreover, as AI is a human invention, there are concerns that it will reflect human biases, thereby causing further difficulties to disadvantaged groups’ economic prospects.
Will staff see robots as capable of having leadership qualities that draw the best out of their teams? Will the consoling arm of a web-based chat be enough for co-workers in times of need, distress and anxiety?
Because of these unanswered questions, a time when humans are managed en masse by machines in the workplace seems distant. But the ability of tech to analyze data does make it valuable for human managers. It helps them understand, at a granular level, who’s doing well and who needs further training and support.
You should involve employees in decisions on technology. By giving co-workers a degree of ownership on the issue, you get staff buy-in because they perceive the investment as driven by a desire to help them improve job satisfaction.
Should C-suites and SMB owners allow technology to make decisions?
Be wary of dispensing with your chief operating officer and chief financial officer just yet. Big data and AI give senior management teams an unparalleled breadth of insight into both their own company and the external world.
ERP and similar software can, with AI plug-ins, identify inefficiencies and waste within businesses and suggest solutions. Be wary of its advice on matters such as growth strategies and investment, though. Generative AI only knows what it’s in its training data and the information it can find on the internet. It has no instinct for, or experience in, business decision-making. The solution it suggests might end up being a square peg for a round hole.
Accuracy is another concern. AI misquotes, and its conclusions are often flawed. Its judgments are generic, and unless you ask it to, it doesn’t explain how it arrived at a conclusion step by step.
For now, invest in business performance analysis tools and take AI suggestions into account after researching them for relevance and accuracy. But always leave the final call in the hands of someone who knows your business and the human factors that affect it.
Data analytics, when combined with AI and machine learning tools, can boost revenues, improve customer service and respond more quickly to market trends. And now, with the falling prices of software and AI plug-ins, SMBs can use data analytics more than ever before.