Chatting to Ian my hairdresser this week, we got onto the subject of which jobs would be safe from robots taking over; hairdressing being one of the most likely. The media has been buzzing in response to the research from Oxford University which warns that 35% of our current roles will be done entirely by robots in the not too distant future.
Indeed the BBC focused our minds on the issue by offering a simple online test
where individuals could determine the likelihood of their roles surviving automation.
I've always thought that hairdressers have one of the most demanding jobs requiring almost 'telepathic' customer service skills such as empathy, sensitivity and responsiveness; not forgetting highly honed skills in managing expectations when faced with the dreaded "I want to look like that" photo! And of course they have an instant mirrored reflection of their performance all day, not missing a forced smile, grimace, scowl, or hopefully look of delight at the finished work of art.
Academics are warning us of the need to keep abreast of developments in Artificial Intelligence (AI) as scientists forge ahead to create robots; which some predict may eventually outwit human intelligence.
Predictions made since the 1950's have until now failed to deliver against forecast, but in the last couple of years Google's billion dollar investment in driverless cars, and Skype's launch of real-time voice translation mean that intelligent machines are now becoming an everyday reality that will change all of our lives.
AI is currently used in many aspects of our daily lives, helping to do lots of routine things more efficiently and with less error than humans. Clever use of robotics and AI can provide hitherto impossible diagnostic tools to assist doctors accurately diagnose rare conditions; man plus machine is better than man alone.
Perhaps clarity is required as to our understanding of what we actually value as exclusively human, in other words what are the human characteristics that enrich our lives and simply cannot be replaced by a robot regardless of how intelligent they are.
In my discussions with Ian the hairdresser, he laughingly suggested that it might be easier for a robot programmed with endless hairstyles to deliver this service; especially when customers don't actually know what they want. This way the customer takes responsibility for a bad choice.
What makes the human process irreplaceable is when the experienced hairdresser allows the customer to believe they have controlled the end product, when in fact it is his experience and skill in interpreting and translating needs in tandem, which creates a blend of what the customer wants and the expert knows will work.
One of the most common complaints about customer service delivered by contact centres is the robotic style of scripted conversations delivered by humans. This seems like a perverse phenomenon, and you might wonder; why have humans? The reality of course is that organisations who allow this to happen have simply not succeeded in creating the conditions where their colleagues can flourish, using their skills to solve problems for callers.
I'm struck by how often regulation is cited as the reason for rigid scripted dialogue; but there are lots of examples of organisations who innovate around regulatory requirements whilst remaining legal.
Unlike the hairdresser, colleagues in contact centres are unlikely to be able to use visual skills to asses how the customer is feeling about their experience. To make up for this feedback deficit, every effort should be made to remove the barriers that prevent helpful and authentic exchanges taking place. Let's face it, most of our conversations today are because something hasn't worked; there's a complexity that can't be completed online; or there's a complaint needing aired directly.
We often use the phrase 'there are no nice calls left' to describe this shift, but in fact problematic calls can turn into moments of magic when handled correctly by humans who are allowed to be... well... human.