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The Multiple Role of Robots at Home and at Work

May 31, 2016


The desire for assistance is often offset by a fear of displacement

The complexities of IT automation were reflected in several presentations at the MIT IDE annual conference May 19. Attendees watched state-of-the-art “social robots” that can perceive human emotions and interact with their human “families,” and also heard about automation disrupting jobs and professions of all types.

Cynthia Breazeal

As MIT Director Erik Brynjolfsson and co-author Andrew McAfee have written in The Second Machine Age, we are at a time of incredible technological advancements. This was clearly illustrated by Cynthia Breazeal, director of the Personal Robots Group at the MIT Media Laboratory, in her keynote presentation describing the research she and her students conduct in socially intelligent robots. The machines are designed to interact with humans socially and intellectually and to work alongside humans as peers.

Jibo, the company Breazeal founded, is bringing to market a “helpful companion robot” based on socio-emotive AI. It can be used in homes by families or the elderly, for example, and is also a content platform for software developers to build on. In a 2014 crowdfunding campaign — before Apple launched Siri — Jibo raised $3.7 million followed by VC investment of $25 million.

At the conference, Breazeal noted that we are at an “inflection point” where the rapid proliferation of AI, big data, open platforms and affordability are coming together to spur robotic developments and what she called the “Internet of everything.” She envisions social robots benefitting humans, perceiving human emotions, helping with daily tasks and offering “nonjudgmental social support, high-touch engagement and trust” for new human-robot teams.

In their book, Bryjolfsson and McAfee also noted that IT advancements are not impacting everyone equally. Picking up on this theme, Tom Davenport, Distinguished Professor of Information Technology and Management at Babson College, said that in the business world automation has displaced workers — first in factories, then in service and administrative roles and increasingly, in knowledge professions.

His new book, Only Humans Need Apply, addresses steps that employees can do to prepare for the shifts under way.


Like Braezeal and the Second Machine Age authors, Davenport believes that humans must work alongside of machines and be re-trained to “augment machines instead of being automated by them.”


Later in the day, Paul Daughtery, Accenture CTO, spoke about “intelligent automation” that is creating new business opportunities and “combinatorial extensions” to current markets. For instance, carmakers are looking into ride-sharing and auto insurance products. We are already seeing “AI …baked into services and products instead of sitting at the edge” of networks, Daughtery said. He also sees this as a huge time of disruption and cultural shifts at Accenture and elsewhere, requiring new levels of trust between businesses and consumers and internally at global organizations.