Artificial intelligence and automation is having a profound effect on industry and the workforce. No longer is the rise of the robots a concern solely for those working on the factory floor.

The impact of smart tech is also being felt in the professions and so called white collar jobs. What is the future of the research sector – a sector that is increasingly reliant on technology? What skills and processes can be undertaken by machines and what, if anything, will still need to be done by humans?

A manifesto for ‘human-ness‘ in the workplace

Ipsos Global Head of Behavioural Science, Colin Strong, , asks whether we humans have anything that machines won’t one day be able to replicate.
>>Read the article

Automation will set us free
Sue Unerman, Chief Strategy Officer,MediaCom UK believes that technology can give us back more time to be ‘productively curious’
>>Read the article

Will technology kill market research?
Phil Sutcliffe, Director at TNS UK, says we should celebrate advances in technology as they enable the mind to get to the 'why' more quickly.
>>Read the article

Focus on the decision
Nick Bonney, ABA Research, wants to move the debate away from the process of research to how insight should bring about commercial action.
>>Read the article

Being human is the one thing we'll always do best
Computers will surpass human ability; the real question is under what circumstances will clients demand to deal with a human, writes Stephen Hampshire, Client Manager at TLF Research.
>>Read the article

Watch the panel debate

You can watch the panel debate from MRS Annual Conference 2016 entitled 'Will curious computers replace curious minds?'

About the paper 

In September 2016, the MRS Delphi Group will publish a paper entitled ‘The Curious Computer: Can technology replace the curious mind?’  which will bring all these contributions together alongside a core paper written by Colin Strong, MD of Verve Ventures. Colin is also a member of the Group.

If you have a view, the MRS Delphi Group welcomes contributions to add to the debate. Email christian.walsh@mrs.org.uk to find out more.

A manifesto for ‘human-ness‘ in the workplace

Colin Strong, Ipsos, asks whether we humans have anything that machines won’t one day be able to replicate.

We live in an era where there is huge excitement about what it is possible for machines to achieve and the implications this has for the workplace. Some consider that we live in the ‘age of the machine’ where decisions can be made much more effectively by computers, others challenge this notion as a misunderstanding the nature of ‘real world’ decision making. 

The research industry, itself not immune to this issue, is in a strong position to comment with authority. We surely have an understanding of human decision making and as such can at least comment intelligently on the possible boundaries of, and potential opportunities for, technology effectively replacing swathes of human thinking in the workplace.

There has been much discussion about the ways in which machines can replace blue collar workers but it is only recently that attention has turned to white collar professions – lawyers, accountants and management consultants have all been placed in an uncomfortable spotlight of how their professions are being disrupted by technology. 

However, as Professor Richard Susskind and his son, Oxford economics lecturer Daniel, point out in their book, ‘The Future of the Professions: How Technology Will Transform the Work of Human Experts’ professionals generally see the potential for intelligent machines to displace experts in every field but their own.

Nevertheless we are seeing ways in which the work of the professions are being increasingly being routinized, disintermediated and decomposed into their constituent parts. This has opened the door to a new breed of para-professionals but also for the use of technology to not only replace basic activities but also to support and ultimately replace more skilled tasks currently undertaken by humans. 

If decision-making is nothing more than assessing information and applying logic – essentially a set of learned rules – then could machines replace many skilled workers? And even if it is more than that – if it requires judgement – can a machine eventually do that as well?

To understand the possibility of this we need to understand one of the essential ingredients of human-ness – curiosity. This is increasingly considered to be one of the most important drivers of success. Indeed a recent PWC survey of CEO’s cited “curiosity” and “open-mindedness” as leadership traits that are becoming increasingly critical in challenging times. 

Given this is a trait that has long been a characteristic of many professions (including market research), then surely we need to protect, nurture and promote this characteristic.

And this is where the debate heats up – indeed it is perhaps the most hotly contested debates of modern times. On the one side are those who believe that our thinking is effectively driven by neurons and learned associations – essentially we are ‘wet computers’. 

This suggests that the future for professions is in greater automation and investment is technology solutions. On the other hand there are those who believe that we are fundamentally different to computers – that we have ‘minds’ which no machine can ever replicate.

Strangely this issue has been left out of the debate about the replicability of professionals by machines. And perhaps for good reason – it is always hard to question assumptions that sit at the very heart of the way we see the world, simply because we are not aware of them. 

Nevertheless, we have no option but to address this issue head on. If we believe that we are wet computers then professions (including market research) quickly need to ratchet up investment in the use of data analytics and machine learning to fundamentally reorient themselves.

However, surely our curiosity is a very human attribute which signals that we are more than ‘wet computers’ – we have not yet managed to programme curiosity or indeed a wide range of other very human attributes into a computer. 

I would like to argue that this is because ‘consumers’ are not simply a bundle of deterministic neurons but are also conscious individuals with free will to decide their own actions and behaviours.

The paper that I am writing will explore why there is a fundamental need for human decision making in all professions; market research can use its unique position to explore and comment on both why this is and where the boundaries sit. As such I believe there is a need for professions to both welcome the many positive effects of technology but at the same time launch a clear manifesto to recognise the scale and scope of the need for humanness in professional workplaces.

You can watch the panel debate from MRS Annual Conference 2016 entitled 'Will curious computers replace curious minds?' 

About the paper

The MRS Delphi Group has commissioned Colin Strong to author ‘The Curious Computer: Can technology replace the curious mind?’ which will be published in September 2016. The paper will also include the viewpoints published on this website.

If you have a view, the MRS Delphi Group welcomes any contributions to add to the debate. Email christian.walsh@mrs.org.uk to find out more.

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