Robot overlords? More like co-verlords. The future is human-robot collaboration

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Davinci surgical system at Magdeburg University Hospital

It’s the classic trope of buddy cop movies: you introduce two characters with little in common aside from the job that they do. Maybe one’s old and the other’s young. Maybe one’s black and the other’s white. Maybe one’s a maverick and the other is a stickler for doing things by the book. At first they don’t get along. Perhaps one is new to the precinct and the other fears that they’re being phased out as a result. But, wouldn’t you know it, they turn out to be a great team. The strengths of one are the weaknesses of the other. The police chief might get pissed at their zany antics, but they’re much better friends than they are enemies. Could the same be true of humans and their relationship with robots?

The typical narrative, as cliché as any Lethal Weapon buddy cop movie ripoff, is that robots are here to steal our jobs. Unless you’re one of the people lucky enough to be building or selling the robots, you should view robots as the flashy new rival in town, hovering in the wings to replace you. But while there are certainly jobs that robots will take from humans (hopefully the dirty, dull, and dangerous jobs humans don’t really want), there are plenty of other jobs in which robots working alongside humans could greatly increase human productivity.

In doing so, they won’t just augment our abilities; they’ll make it possible to scale jobs in a way that was unimaginable in the pre-robot age.

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At these factories, robots are making jobs better for workers

729083BA-5659-46B4-A5A1-E335B843A105A worker leads a large industrial robot at the BMW Group Plant Regensburg, Germany.

Any minute now, some speculate, workers around the world will be asked to make way for robots.

Their arrival may be welcome in some cases. Our latest research suggests that when robots—or automated manufacturing technology—take over jobs that are oriented around repetitive tasks, operators are able to move onto more exciting and productive work.

This was the case at 16 “lighthouses of manufacturing,” which were identified as part of a joint McKinsey and World Economic Forum project presented at Davos.

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