The Future of Knowledge Work

Did you meet Baxter at Appian World 16?

Baxter might not be as smart as Lieutenant Commander Data.

He’s definitely not as strong as the new FANUC M-2000iA/1700L that can lift 1.7 tons—the equivalent of two small cars or 24 people.

And, he is certainly not as pretty as the robot “clones” on Orphan Black.

Yet, Baxter-class robots are already impacting the very foundation of some key industries, and may well represent an important way in which knowledge work will be accomplished in the future.

Robots That Think

With the “fourth industrial revolution,” we are seeing intelligent robots and sensors that are adaptable, flexible, and connected, working alongside us on the factory floor. These robots are part of the connected manufacturing wave that is critical to smart factories and ultimately realizing the vision of the IoT (Internet of Things) to make “things” run better.

But will robots work with us or replace us?

Robots That Threaten

Experts predict robots will take over 30 percent of our jobs by 2025. Current research indicates that, as cost barriers fall, workplaces will naturally gravitate towards teams of humans and robots working together to accomplish goals, each assigned the tasks for which they are ideally suited.

I welcome these improvements.

For example, how cool is Kiva, that squat orange supply chain robot that zooms around the shelves at Amazon fulfillment centers, picking up goods and carrying them to their human co-workers. Collapsing what used to take hours of walking into mere minutes, and speeding your same day delivery on its way.

And what about the possibilities for the energy sector with automated drones that fly pipeline reconnaissance in the energy sector for early  alerts to their human repair teams, increasing safety and avoiding lengthy shutdowns.

Robots That Help

The real point is that whether they replace or enhance their human counterparts, thinking robots are not enough. What we need are robots who help their humans with logic and empathy.

In one of my favorite TED talks, Why We Will Rely on Robots, Rodney Brooks introduces us to a Baxter robot that can understand that humans are different and must be treated accordingly.

Brooks builds adaptive robots based on biological principles of movement and reasoning. The goal: a robot who can figure things out; and one that can collaborate to help humans. For example, Baxter interacts with his “puny human” carefully. “It doesn’t hurt. It feels the force, understands that Chris is there and doesn’t push through him and hurt him.”

Brooks contests the idea that robots will simply replace people on the job, saying “In fact, they can become our essential collaborators, freeing us up to spend time on less mundane and mechanical challenges.”

We are already seeing amazing results in healthcare from medical robots that augment the surgeon’s potential with superhuman precision and repeatability, like the tele-operated da Vinci® Surgical System.

The New Knowledge Worker

Herein lies the essential benefit of adaptive case management and the potential future of knowledge work. We know case management can put data in context and orchestrate work to help knowledge workers make better decisions. Why not an AI robotic extension to help act on those decisions for better outcomes?

So perhaps the next Baxter robot you meet will be called “CaseMan.” Be sure to shake his hand and maybe even hug him. He’s there to help you.

A version of this article first appeared in CMSWire.

Deb Miller