“Danger, Will Robinson!” will be replaced with “Home, James” – and James will be a robot.

One of TV’s most famous — and most endearing — robots was B-9 from the 1960s series Lost in Space, who, in an effort to protect his master from impending disaster, would zoom around the screen, arms flapping, repeating: “Danger, Will Robinson, Danger!”  The threat was always thwarted by either Will himself or another member of his literally lost-in-space family, but the drama of overcoming it also upped the plot-ante and kept the show running for multiple seasons. This narrative isn’t so dissimilar from tech trends in general and the arc of innovation, AI and robots in particular.

Fast-forward to 2017. New president, new agenda, but ideation never rests. In fact, as I crisscross the globe, I’ve seen the future, and it’s not only bright — it’s brilliant. STEM meets STEAM at colleges and universities worldwide that are graduating artists who code, and coders who build, and builders who … you get my drift. Engineers, designers, manufacturers and marketers are collaborating at warp speed in unprecedented ways to bring not only efficiency but also joy to businesses and consumers.

What does this have to do with AI?  Everything. Whereas artificial intelligence and robots used to be the fixation of the Alvin Toffler Future Shock sci-fi fringe, now white-collar mid-management is beginning to see the upside of a colleague who never makes a mistake. Meet The Bot, your new BFF. And the “being” who will enhance your production and performance.

While present-day bots can and do warn or safeguard us from certain threats, they will not only get better at protecting us but, most importantly, will also help us be better at our jobs. They will enable excellence in both our careers and hobbies, thus improving our quality of life and making us happier. There’s gold at the end of the rainbow, and you don’t have to wait like Dorothy to find it.

I’m not saying that many of us don’t feel a little uneasy at the prospect of handing over the wheel of our car to a piece of machinery while we enjoy a cocktail or nap in the backseat. But sooner than you can say, “Sweet Dreams,” the majority of Gen Z will be confidently issuing the directive, “Home, James,” not to a flesh-and-blood driver, but to the car itself.

How will most people, particularly those of us born before 2001, move from timid to trustful with tin men? I would argue that socio-cultural, economic, technological and environmental conditions will play a part in how quickly and comfortably the average human adapts to, and therefore adopts, robots into their everyday life. But barring the apocalypse, a return to a Mad Max barren landscape and a do-over of civilization, we’re not going back to the prairie any time soon. It’s full-steam, or STEAM, ahead, my friends.

  • Socio-cultural: Whether we want to admit it or not, we’re competitive by nature. Not in a mean-spirited way; we’re curious and want to try, or at least hear about, “What’s New.” If my friends are using bots and aren’t creeped out, then maybe I won’t be either. In this sense, we’re herd animals, and if a friend is OK with letting an autonomous robot care for her child or elderly parent, then chances are, I’ll be fine with it, too. According to some sources, by 2020, $17.39 billion will be spent on mobile robots, and a significant portion of those whizzing bots will be domestic help.
  • Economic: Just as with the late 18th century Industrial Revolution, Industry 4.0 has its “Luddites” – those fearful of change and how that change will impact their livelihood. Disruption to the old way of doing business often evokes insecurity and, at its most vocal, protest. And then that “disruption” becomes the norm. As Martin Ford, author of Rise of the Robots, said in a recent interview, “The second thing [that is different than the Industrial Revolution] is that information technology is so ubiquitous. It’s going to invade the entire economy, every employment sector.” What we will see in 2017 is the upside of AI. Will jobs become redundant? Some. Will new jobs be created? Many. No matter your perspective, it’s cheaper, for companies and consumers, to let the metal-man do it.
  • Technological: You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn’t like the “mind-reading” aspect of AI. The way that Netflix, Facebook, Amazon and other social media and service-providing platforms anticipate your needs is unprecedented – and sorta great. I call this “dumbing up.” I don’t need to spend hours sifting through iTunes to a find a bossa nova song in the same vein as The Girl from Ipanema. I’m OK with letting Apple IQ find the tunes I’m in the mood for and deliver it to my music library so that I can reserve my neurons for loftier pursuits. My cognitive bandwidth isn’t doing busywork searching for entertainment; it’s pursuing products and services that delight.
  • Environment: I’m not saying a robot’s going to be my new BFF, but I don’t mind someone without a brain like mine, or even a body like mine, increasing my efficiency at work and at play. Maybe a bot will make me more competitive with myself so that I not only hit career goals sooner, but I also train a bit harder for triathlons. (If I did triathlons.) And what if the nurse taking my vitals at my next annual exam is a modern-day version of B-9 from Lost in Space? Even though 400,000 patient deaths are annually attributed to misdiagnosis, aka human error, I, like you, will probably be suspicious. At least initially. Can someone whose blood runs cold empathize with my symptoms? Maybe not. But the doctor who works alongside the bot-nurse hopefully will. Who knows, maybe we’ll prefer the bot.

As the White House suggested in its December 2016 “AI, Automation and the Economy” report, business leaders are wise to do the following:

  • Invest in and develop AI for its many benefits.
  • Educate and train Americans for jobs of the future.
  • Aid workers in the transition and empower workers to ensure broadly shared growth.

It’s the first month of the New Year, with a new administration, and for many people, it’s scary to conceive of a not-too-distant future where we relinquish control to a robot. For others, this type of horizon couldn’t be sunnier. Wherever you, your colleagues or clients may be on the spectrum of timid to trusting, it’s no longer the dawning of the Age of AI. We’re in deep.

The AI conversation will likely continue throughout 2017. Let me know what you think, or contact me by email, LinkedIn or Twitter.

Theo Forbath

Theo Forbath

Theo Forbath is Global Vice President of Digital Transformation at Cognizant. With more than fifteen years’ experience as an innovator in global... Read more