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I love a good sci-fi film as much as the next guy, but what happens when the science is no longer fiction?  If you’ve been following developments in the field of computers, you may have seen recent stories regarding how some fairly well regarded individuals, namely Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates and Elon Musk, think the greatest threat to mankind may not be Isis or terrorists generally, or nuclear proliferation, but artificial intelligence.  And they are not alone.

The thinking goes something like this: Once true artificial intelligence is developed, man will no longer be the most intelligent “species” (think of the Star Trek television episode where Data wanted recognition as a sentient being) on the planet, and, as was the case with man, the likely result that follows the development of artificial intelligence is that it will then proceed to dominate the world.  Think Will Smith in i, Robot. Not good.

Stephen Hawking’s glass half empty perspective is downright troubling.  In an interview with the BBC regarding AI, Hawking said “The primitive forms of artificial intelligence we already have, have proved very useful. But I think the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race. Once humans develop artificial intelligence it would take off on its own and redesign itself at an ever-increasing rate. Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete and would be superseded.”  Superseded.

In a February 4, 2015 article, published in The Guardian, Ray Kurzweil, director of engineering at Google, “estimated that robots will reach human levels of intelligence by 2029, purportedly leaving us about 14 years to reign supreme.”  IBM’s Watson computer, which won Jeopardy in 2011, has been successfully applied to medical diagnoses and can outperform doctors in some tasks.  The same machine has also been transformed into an “artificial lawyer,” which can search legal databases and correspondence for possibly relevant information.

Ok.  So what does this have to do with an employment law blog (besides the possible demise of MY job)?  Hopefully, nothing anytime soon.  But it is a fun segue into something we should probably begin to consider and discuss that is perhaps more imminent:  the impact of robotics and algorithms displacing – rather than merely complementing – the performance of what we have always believed were tasks that could only be performed by humans.  (When most lawyers showed up for their first day of class at law school, at least one sadistic professor was fond of saying “Look to your left, now look to your right.  One of those people won’t be here next Fall.”  Nice.)

Well, at the current pace of developing technology, maybe it has some application to the workplace that we will see within our lifetime.  Happily, not all thinkers see the incorporation of robotics into the workplace as a negative.  In a December 2012 article for Wired, Kevin Kelly describes the likely progression of robots replacing humans in the workplace.  And we are starting to see it happening today.  Just as one example, last holiday season, Lowes tested the use of robot greeters in selected locations.  Yes.  Robots working alongside humans – Lowes employees and customers alike. We are still waiting for the outcome of their experiment but it seems imminent that we will be seeing much more of this in our future.

thWe need to begin and then escalate the discussion regarding AI and the use of robotics and algorithms as a means of replacing employees and the impact this will have on the workplace.  Given how fast the technology is developing, we don’t want to get left behind and we certainly don’t want Professor Hawking’s glooms-day view to ever come to fruition.

In the shorter term, however, existing smart technology offers opportunities to enhance the customer experience and increase overall productivity.  As Steven Rattner observed in a June 14, 2014 New York Times piece, “Call it automation, call it robots, or call it technology; it all comes down to the concept of producing more with fewer workers. Far from being a scary prospect, that’s a good thing.”  Yep.  That’s a good thing.