Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto—Wait, you’re the boss?!

Artificial intelligence (AI) is all over the news, and when it comes to innovating and disrupting the workforce, robots have become an increasing part of the conversation. But it’s rare to hear experts sound off on AI moving into white-collar professions. Fortunately, our guest this week is Dan O’Hara, who has been in the software and technology industry for more than 25 years and serves as the Senior VP of Digital Workplace at Avanade. Dan is a thought leader on the use of AI in business—including the concept of a robo-boss—and has recently presented on the topic in various venues as well as experienced the phenomenon for himself during a stint with Uber.  

“In my view, ‘digital’ is all about the data,” says O’Hara. Once you start using data to figure out who the best customers are, and what’s the best offer, and which employee is the right one to go talk to them?  “That, to me, is digital”.  Data leads to analytics, which then leads to artificial intelligence. He laughs, “Which I think leads to robo-boss.”

But where is the jump from data analytics into artificial intelligence?

“The jump is decisions,” says O’Hara. "Data analytics is often thought of as bringing data together.   A person is going to look at a dashboard or suggestions. But as you start to get into artificial intelligence, that’s where a machine is actually making the decision. Who’s the next customer that the machine wants a person to call in a call center? Where is the next place the machines wants to send your customer if they come to a webpage?’ All of those scenarios are when artificial intelligence is actually making the decision."

O’Hara says that the common business problems, like the need to attract the best customers or get the most productivity out of employees, are still the same. What’s different today is that you have digital disrupters using fewer people and more machine learning.

“What can’t it do starts to be the intelligent automation question,” says Avanade’s O’Hara, citing self-driving cars and other news-making advancements as some of the more high-profile examples of companies answering that question for themselves. But the fear about artificial intelligence replacing humans is almost as high-profile as the excitement about its capabilities—especially now that robots are rising up the corporate ladder.

“At the World Economic Forum [in Davos this year] there was some research presented on what the least likely jobs to be replaced will be - such as a physical therapist or a maid at a hotel—knowing how to fold towels, give the best massage, etc. All of those things are very hands-on, sensitive tasks that it’ll be a while before the robots do well. But when you look at functions like tax preparation, assembling managerial reports, sales allocation, and sales management, there are a lot of opportunities for a machine or a ‘robo-boss’ to make different decisions—or better decisions—because they are looking at more data, and able to make some of the decisions without depending on instinct or gut feel” says O’Hara.

The other side of the coin is that often the most mundane and easily automated functions are the ones used to train aspiring professionals in their fields, like the discovery process for law clerks as they transition into litigators. 

“Training us and training the machines at the same time is going to be a combination that we need to get right,” confirms O’Hara. “Some companies will do a great job of it and will do wonderful things. Other people won’t, and we’ll be going, ‘Why am I talking to this machine? I just want a real person,’ like we’ve done for a while with IVR (interactive voice response).”

But automation can do more than just torment frustrated callers.

“In the process of the mundane comes the brilliant, right? A lot of the places we’ve gone with technology have been triggered by a frustration with what we were doing, and therefore coming up with a better way,” says Evelyn Ashley. She laughs about a future where all of the work goes the way of automation and stifles human creativity. “Maybe we all turn into the drones!”

Our conversation touches on the application of creativity, the ethics and role of humanity in mechanizing our decisions, and much more. Stream the conversation in its entirety in the player below, or download it to your mobile device via iTunes. For more on O’Hara’s work with Avanade, find him on twitter @doharas1 and check out Avanade’s research on smart technologies

*Note that our guest misspoke in the podcast and the traffic death statistics were per year, not per day. For the most up-to-date statistic, click here