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Robots as talent — collaboration, not competition

Cognitive computing: Already changing the world of work

This article is the final part in a series by professional services firm Deloitte which has explored the new world of work, the top talent challenges, and how leaders can begin to address them.

Exciting cognitive computing technologies are now able to perform many tasks once considered solely the domain of humans. Cognitive technologies such as speech recognition, computer vision, and machine learning are converging to produce machines that can talk, see, read, listen, and even learn by watching YouTube videos. While 60 per cent of executives surveyed in Deloitte’s 2015 Human Capital Trends research are interested in “machines as talent”, few have a strong grasp of the issue. Only 5 per cent of executives surveyed believe they have a detailed understanding of how cognitive computing will impact their workforce. The impact of computing on work is not new, but it is accelerating.

The more radical changes are those brought on by cognitive computing, which can make work better, faster, and even safer. Today, healthcare workers, customer service agents, sales people, and even retail workers benefit from automation and cognitive technologies, helping them to diagnose and prescribe drugs more rapidly, solve problems, recommend the right product, or simply take an order. Some jobs are being eliminated and others are changing. In the coming era of human-machine collaboration, jobs, organisations, and management practices will need to be thoughtfully and deliberately redesigned. Employees — including executives and managers — will need to acquire new skills. An emerging theme in this area is the idea that machines are collaborators, not competitors, in the workplace.

Consider, for instance, Associated Press (AP), which is implementing a system to automate the writing of corporate earnings reports. AP’s goal was not to put journalists out of work but rather to increase — by a factor of over ten — the number of companies it covers, from 300 to 4,400. AP’s scale and reach has increased without increasing its need for labour. As Lou Ferrara of AP says: “This is about using technology to free journalists to do more journalism and less data processing, not about eliminating jobs.”

Similarly, as translation programs have become more efficient, the job of a translator has changed to become more like that of an editor. E-discovery in litigation is performed with assistance from computers. Amazon is using robots more, redefining warehouse workers’ jobs. And the list of examples goes on:

• An insurance company allows customers to take photos of their auto accidents and submit them electronically to claims software, which accelerates the claims process.

• Barclays now validates the identity of callers through voice recognition instead of by asking questions.

• Automated fraud detection systems help service agents make more profitable decisions with less extensive training.

• At Volkswagen, robots help manufacturing line workers do more work with fewer work-related injuries.

Talent and learning teams need to understand technology and use “design thinking” as a way to integrate technology into the workplace. By leading the process of “job redesign,” developing hard-hitting training programmes, and working with technologists on the implementation of new technology, HR leaders can help ease the transition of these technologies into the workforce and improve productivity and engagement as a result.

Lessons from the front lines

Recent efforts by the health benefits company Anthem, previously Wellpoint, to develop a leading integrated healthcare platform provide an example of how collaboration between people and machines can advance business goals. Anthem’s platform links data from a variety of sources using a cognitive computer system, allowing employees to more effectively administer customer benefits while reducing overall costs.

In the past, nurse practitioners spent hundreds of thousands of hours analysing whether proposed treatments were consistent with Anthem’s policies. These decisions involve detailed knowledge of medical science, patient history, and the prescribing doctor’s treatment rationale. Now, the process is partially automated by a cognitive computing system that uses hypothesis generation and evidence based learning to generate confidence-scored recommendations that help nurses make faster decisions about treatment requests. Over time, confidence ratings in the system and its accuracy have improved. The system can automatically approve some outpatient requests. Throughout the process, Anthem “teaches” the system how to recognise the organisation’s guidelines and policies. Anthem executive noted: “The more we taught, the faster the cognitive platform learnt.”

Where companies can start

• Explore and learn: Invest the time to learn about how cognitive technologies and advanced robotics can impact business, jobs, and productivity. What solutions are currently being used, and what is on the horizon?

• Share experiences: Given the scope and speed of advances in cognitive technologies and robotics, there are opportunities for business to collaborate with universities, technology companies, and suppliers to identify ways of working beyond the enterprise.

• Experiment with new job models: Find opportunities to pilot cognitive technologies and present leaders with options for creating value with them.

• Evaluate what does and does not work: Review new combinations of technologies and robotics and their impact on job design, productivity, and worker satisfaction. Analyse how these technologies improve, or diminish, productivity and employee engagement.


As cognitive technologies take hold, it is important for business leaders to proactively get ahead of this trend. Business leaders should look beyond the alarmist predictions that employees are doomed to be replaced by thinking machines and robots. HR’s role is to focus on the opportunities for collaboration between people and machines to make companies more efficient, productive, and profitable, and jobs more meaningful and engaging. Business leaders should seize this opportunity to think creatively in helping their organisations take full advantage of emerging cognitive technologies.

For more information about Human Capital Services at Deloitte, contact Jessica Mello, director of consulting at Deloitte, on 295-1500 or at jessica.mello@deloitte.bm