Are Government Robots Coming For Your Job?

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The government’s goal right now is to promote its robot employees to higher tasks.

A lot of very smart people, like Elon Musk and the late Stephen Hawking, believe that artificial intelligences and the robotic bodies that could house them will eventually lead to the end of the world, or at least the end of human civilization. That concept has also become a cliché in science-fiction. Personally, I don’t think robots and AI will ever eliminate humans, not so much because I don’t see their potential, but because I don’t think humans are talented enough to build something both powerful and malicious enough to destroy humanity, much less something that could really become sentient, which is obviously the first requirement.

In the short term though, there is a good chance that AI and robotics might advance automation to the point where quite a few people will be put out of work. Some researchers believe that about half of all job fields have vulnerable workers who could be replaced by AI or robotics by 2026. And in what could make things even more difficult for women in the workforce, those studies also suggest that traditionally female-dominated fields might be more harshly affected by the new robotic employees.

The government isn’t falling behind on AI and robotics but is taking a careful approach designed to use robotics and automation to elevate humans to higher, better roles instead of eliminating them completely. At least that’s the plan.

Currently, there are 20 federal agencies that employ one of the lowest levels of robotics in the workforce, which is called robotics process automation or RPA. The General Services Administration is one of the most invested, with 10 RPA systems on the job now and plans to increase that to 25 by the end of the year. In general, RPA systems look impressive on the surface, performing multiple tasks quickly such as looking up employee data and issuing payroll checks or dispatching money electronically. But they are only following a highly defined ruleset, which they can never break. They are not true AIs or even all that advanced in terms of robotics. They are more like old-school expert systems, but can still perform repetitive tasks accurately and with great speed.

The government’s goal right now is to promote its robot employees to higher tasks. For that, it needs to develop intelligent process automation, or IPA. The duties of an IPA system are similar to those performed by the non-intelligent RPAs, with the exception that IPAs can learn from their environment, make some level of judgment call should something fall outside of its programmed parameters, and remember those decisions if they are successful.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is taking the lead on evolving government robotics to the next step. It recently issued a request for information to see how IPA is being successfully used in the commercial sector, and where the technology could perhaps interface with government. Specifically, the new government robots would need to be able to work in fields like procurement, where they would be expected to run cost analysis studies, modify contracts and evaluate proposals from vendors.

The goal of the new advanced government robots would not be to replace humans, though that would certainly happen in some cases, but instead to elevate them out of jobs where they have no future. The theme of elevating, not replacing, humans using AI and robotics was repeatedly stressed at the 2019 ACT-IAC Artificial Intelligence and Intelligent Automation Forum in Washington, D.C.

“We shouldn’t be hiring for positions that can be automated,” said Ed Burrows, a senior adviser to GSA’s chief financial officer, at the forum. “That becomes a dead-end job. So that’s one thing to keep in mind. We should think about automation first.”

In fact, the government has been directed to do just that according to the President’s Management Agenda, which stipulates that wherever possible, government workers should be moved up from menial positions to higher-value tasks. Employing either IPA or RPA systems could accomplish that by filling in and taking on the necessary, low value jobs that humans will be abandoning. It’s just that the IPA systems could expand the definition of a menial task a little bit more toward the high end, displacing or promoting more humans, depending on how you want to look at it.

It’s good that government is looking at the impact of AI and robotics on humans, and not just on the increased efficiencies the new systems, especially IPA ones, could offer. I doubt that too many private companies would worry about workers losing their jobs if it meant an increase in their bottom line. However, my guess is that by taking a balanced approach and promoting workers who have proven their skills and reliability doing drudge work to higher-level tasks in the same field, agencies will improve operations even more in the long run.

If all goes to plan, people won’t be complaining that a robot took their job, at least in government. Instead, they might find themselves bragging about an advanced robot that took over their old, crappy job, and thus paved the way for their own well-deserved promotion.

John Breeden II is an award-winning journalist and reviewer with over 20 years of experience covering technology. He is the CEO of the Tech Writers Bureau, a group that creates technological thought leadership content for organizations of all sizes. Twitter: @LabGuys