When a robot runs the company

Big advances in artificial intelligences could lead to the arrival of robotic CEOs.
Written by Bob Violino, Contributor

Robots are performing a variety of tasks at organizations, and they're expected to take on a growing number of functions at companies including manufacturers, hotels, healthcare providers, and retailers.

Will the day ever come when a robot actually runs an entire company? Probably -- and it might not be too far off in the future.

"In reality, humans doing many tedious automated tasks have already become replaced by robots," said Kevin Curran, professor of cyber security at Ulster University and IEEE senior member. "I see no reason why this trend will not continue right up to the arrival of machine CEOs."

The arrival of robotic CEOs -- when it does happen -- might not even make headlines, Curran said. "It may be so gradual that one day we wake up as a society to find our boss is a robot and no one can recall the tipping point," he said. "It just made sense. They just became so good, cheap and downright perfect at doing their job."

But the robot CEO will not necessarily look like the robots of science fiction books and movies. "When people are presented with the vision of a robotic CEO, they naturally picture a humanoid robot CEO," Curran said. "A true humanoid robot would be a recreation of the human thought process -- a man-made machine with our intellectual abilities."

This would include the ability to learn just about anything, and the ability to reason, use language, and formulate original ideas, Curran said. Roboticists are nowhere near achieving this level of artificial intelligence (AI), but they have made a lot of progress with more limited AI, Curran said.

"Today's robots can replicate some specific elements of intellectual ability and it is indeed possible that a robotic CEO will replace CEOs at top companies," Curran said. But the reality might be a little less dramatic, he said, as the robotic CEO might not even take on a physical humanlike form. Instead, it would be a pervasive intelligence ruling over the company in a less imposing manner.

"AI of course will drive the robotic CEO," Curran said. "We already see AI software running underneath all sorts of modern technological tasks, from autopilot to the magnificent gyroscope ability of Segways. Anywhere that 'fast fuzzy type' decisions needs to be made, there is some artificial intelligence involved."

Read also: Now, hackers are targeting internet-connected industrial robots | Could direct drive actuators push robots into the mainstream? | How and why Apple's robot Liam disassembles iPhones | Robot crime raises thorny legal issues that need addressing now (TechRepublic)

In the long term, robots are cheaper than human labor but the initial investment can be very costly. "It is still difficult and time-consuming to program robots to perform multiple tasks, or to even reprogram a robot to perform tasks outside its original function," Curran said. This accounts for why, in markets such as China, human workers to date are still cheaper to deploy than robots.

"Culturally, it's possible this would lead to more equitable promotions," Curran said. "Human emotions would not play a role in the promotion [or lack of a promotion] of individuals within the organization. It would be interesting of course to see how motivations within the workforce change when a computer is monitoring employee key performance indicators. How will they behave?"

Even if a company is run by a robot, human workers need not fear that their jobs will be taken by machines.

"There is a widely accepted view in society that robots will remove jobs from the market, but there is data to support the fact that technological advances actually create jobs," Curran said. "In many cases, it removes dull and low-skill occupations, while simultaneously creating entirely new categories of work."

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