You, Robot! by Thomas Goebel

Posted by amc on 11/30/2017 1:07 pm  /   Professional Interest

Isaac is an alien robot on The Orville, a new comedy series from Fox.  He comes from a planet inhabited entirely by non-biological beings who feel they’re superior to humans, accepting the post as a way to study that inferior lifeform.  Predictably befuddled when introduced to the vagaries and idiosyncrasies of human life, Isaac proves a quick study and is soon with the program, carrying out practical jokes and using slang.

Is this going to happen?  We read daily of new applications for robotics.  Some, like a recently introduced faux dog, are innocuous.  Others raise questions about ethics and the survival of our species.  Designers are getting better and better at creating robots that mimic human actions and speech.  But how close are they to thinking like people, solving problems, or maintaining complex relationships with others?

Academia and the private sector are hard at work trying to answer this question.  While the former concentrates primarily on the larger questions (human-like thought processing, motion, mimicry), the latter is dedicated to creating robots that solve industrial and domestic problems (cleaning, dangerous occupations).  Ethical questions, when they come up, are typically brushed off with a kind of myopic optimism.  This peculiarity is also evident when the subject is worker displacement.

Enter Project Management.  It is tempting to invoke expert systems when trying to discern the effect of robotics on the future of our industry.  An expert system takes a systematic approach to problem-solving through a tree-type algorithm that explores decision branches and settles on the best possible outcome.  It’s simple enough to plug such an algorithm into the “brain” of an android that’s also been programmed to drink coffee and talk about football.  This formula, on second thought, is fraught with stumbling blocks precisely due to the unpredictability of humans and happenstance.  Humans can invent problems where none have ever existed, and happenstance will conspire with Murphy’s Law to ensure that the impossible occurs at the worst time.  Voila!  Our “expert system” has just become an “update system”.

You techies out there are now itching to ask about machine-learning.  Much more advanced than expert systems, machine-learning algorithms actually learn from experience and apply these lessons as they keep working.  Used heavily in the financial industry and increasingly in the medical sector for activities like microsurgery, machine-learning technology is growing by leaps and bounds.

But you, Project Manager, have a secret shield.  Your job not only involves making multiple decisions, taxing for the most advanced algorithm, you are also regularly required to arrive at these decisions simultaneously.  This means that the outcomes of any or all of the decisions affect both inputs into, and outcomes from, the rest.  Sound like something a machine can do easily?  Additionally, a significant part of your job is a little something called stakeholder management.  The “management” part of this often has far less to do with the mechanics of solving problems than with soothing ruffled feathers and offering reassurance.  In other words, the emotional component of project management remains high, and it will be some time before the AI industry is prepared to jump into that pool.

So, while the auto industry and agriculture are snapping up robots for assembly and planting, it would appear that project management, for the time being, is safe.  R2D2’s not coming for your job.  He can’t even hold his own in a conversation at the water cooler.