An ethnographer’s examination of the true nature of work finds that people and machines are in for a lasting partnership.

By Hank Shaw, Xerox contributor

The notion that robots will eventually take over our jobs and make humans obsolete has been floating around for decades, and Hollywood’s penchant for evil, world-dominating machines only adds to our wildest fears.

But in some sectors, new technology has in fact replaced manual labor and led to the elimination of countless jobs. Think factories, electronic toll booths and automated help lines.

While many companies still outsource large-scale call center operations with humans, how long until they’re replaced with virtual agents?

The answer: Don’t count people out. This from our ethnographic researchers, at the Xerox Research Centre Europe in Grenoble, France.

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“Many activities in the workplace have ‘hidden complexities’ much better suited for intelligent human beings than intelligent machines.”

The researchers examined the workplace of the future, with a focus on whether futurists’ predictions that intelligent machines will replace humans could actually come true.

A reality check for ‘grand visions’ of the future

Research on the modern, tech-driven workplace, uncovered some fundamental flaws.

Take the idea that machines—i.e. “virtual agents”—will replace human workers in everything from customer service to medicine. From a technological standpoint, it seems possible, because advances in intelligent computing are quickly giving machines the ability to process natural language and connect with expert knowledge bases.

For example, call center employees often have to investigate the real reason for calls. They have to help translate the caller’s concerns and problems into terms that match up with the organization’s knowledge base software. And even if they’re sitting down, they have to think fast on their feet, since issues often pop up that aren’t covered by a script. In other words, the work is much more complex than it appears at first glance.

The unique capabilities of people and machines

In fact, many activities in the workplace have “hidden complexities” much better suited for intelligent human beings than intelligent machines —which is why computers are not likely to tap people on the shoulder and take over anytime in the near future.

Our researchers have some advice for futurists who sometimes think of machines as people and people as “human processors:”

“What matters is that we don’t use computer metaphors for people, and we don’t use people metaphors for computers. Rather we capitalize on, and value, their unique capabilities, and we put them together to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.”

 “Designing the Workplace of the Future,” is part of a series of discussions on new directions developed for the 20th anniversary of Xerox Research Centre Europe in October, 2013.

This article was originally published in Real Business, a website from Xerox that provides ideas and information for decision makers in business and government.