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Column

Becoming one with the machines

Ask not what tech can do for you, but what you and tech can do together for people - that's the advice of TransUnion CEO Lee Naik.

Lee Naik, TransUnion CEO.

Lee Naik, TransUnion CEO.

The day when man and machine become one is closer than you think. Sceptical?

Tell me, when was the last time you were without your phone? It's probably close at hand right this second – you may even be reading this article on it. Yes, there's no denying that most of us carry our mobile device around like a life support machine. But it isn't the only technology that's moving more and more into our physical space, becoming a greater part of our identity, and enhancing our lives for the better.

Moving beyond mobile

Mind-controlled prosthetics have taken a big leap forward, and now even completely able-bodied people are showing an interest – who couldn't use another thumb, after all? My son and his fellow Xbox-ers will be thrilled.

Google X is working on a way to detect illness earlier with tiny nanobots that will live in your blood; and there's even talk of putting these kind of bots in our brains to give us superhuman-like capabilities. The dawn of the cyborg is inevitable. It could even happen as soon as 2045, if Ray Kurzweil's predictions are right... and he's been right more than once before.

But, for those of us who feel less than enthusiastic about this transhumanist future, the good news is that it's not the only (or even necessarily the best) way to become one with the machines.

From lab to living room

It's true the medicine and healthcare industry has acted as the ‘workshop' for innovation in connecting humans and robots together in the literal sense – from cochlear implants to electronic tattoos that measure vital signs. But, they're also leading the charge in helping to connect with these bags of bolts and volts in another way: on a personal and emotional level.

Paro is a therapeutic companion robot designed to look like a baby harp seal and to respond as a pet would to sensory cues. It's said to provide sufferers of dementia, Alzheimer's and other stressful and isolating conditions with the same benefits as animal therapy.

And what about Xbox Kinect therapy? Today, Jintronix is utilising the popular gaming hardware to save physical rehabilitation patients a trip to the doc, offering them the opportunity to carry out their physical therapy in the comfort of their home through a series of games.

Collaborative robots are machines designed not to replace humans in workspaces, but to work alongside them.

These are the kinds of steps forward that have been turning the tide of public opinion, where the feeling up until recently has been very much a case of man versus machine. What if I told you this is the key to becoming one with the machines – getting people to lay down their pitchforks and invite change instead of sabotaging it? Well it is.

Rise of the cobots

In light of the clashes between metered taxis and Uber that have been happening in the country, how do you think either of these groups would respond if a robot threatened their jobs? Certainly not very well. The greatest challenge to progress and improvement is always one of gaining public acceptance and favour. In this regard, businesses would do well to take a leaf or two out of the healthcare industry's book, and with cobots, they may be doing exactly that.

Collaborative robots are machines designed not to replace humans in workspaces, but to work alongside them. Some examples are YuMi, the industrial dual arm, Amazon's new warehouse bots that can locate and return with inventory items on command, and robotic exosuits that can aid humans in heavy lifting. While they've flooded into manufacturing and logistics, that's not the only place they can be found.

Food, fashion, entertainment, the environment and, of course, medicine – cobots have made a mark on just about every industry you can think of, and people are really excited about it. It's as I've said before: no matter the services or products a brand offers, however wonderful or revolutionary, it won't inspire success if its employees and staff don't feel good about it.

Plugging into people

If the bulk of your business's digital transformation has amounted to complicated new internal systems that your employees have to study up on, or tech and processes that have replaced their colleagues or taken tasks they enjoyed away from them, it'll leave them with a bitter taste in their mouths. How do you think these people, and their family and friends (and, by extension, their family and friends) are going to feel about investing their time and money in your company?

Now, think about how people feel about companies like Unilever, famous for adhering to the primacy of people in its brand values. Its approach to innovation through collaboration with disruptive tech start-ups, via the Unilever Foundry, aims to make sustainable living a reality for a billion people; its leveraging technology to bring consumers more useful, purpose-driven content through its brand activism, as opposed to a marketing push; and finally, one of its latest hiring techniques utilises a combination of AI and gamification, and has proved vastly successful. It seems employees are equally pleased with the results, as Unilever regularly features on Global Top Employer lists.

This is what becoming one with the machines is about: combining our efforts to deliver products, solutions and services that couldn't exist without man or machine, and that benefit people first and profit margins at a close second. That's the sweet spot right now.

Have you found it? And will your employees rally behind your robotic aspirations or revolt against them?


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