Human-Machine Diversity: Ensuring That Tech is Inclusive

Artificial intelligence and robotics certainly aren’t brand new technological developments. However, their use in business and industry is steadily growing year over year. Much of this growth has been driven by the labor market issues caused by COVID-19 and the Great Resignation; they’re powerful catalysts.

Machines are increasingly performing common tasks like vacuuming floors, answering customer phone calls, serving as digital personal assistants, delivering packages and even serving customers at restaurants.

While the leveraging of non-human labor resources certainly has the potential to displace millions of workers, it doesn’t mean human labor is going to be obsolete anytime soon. In fact, human-robot collaboration can offer important synergies and efficiencies that aren’t currently available using just one labor source alone. Some technology experts even suggest that this collaboration represents a new kind of workplace diversity.

A New Kind of Workplace Diversity

“What does diversity have to do with robotics and the future of work?” asks Ayanna Howard in an article for MIT Sloan Review. “Research has long shown that when humans and robots work collaboratively, they can complement each other’s talents, resulting in task improvements.”

In other words, Howard is describing the addition of a human-machine element to the concept of diversity on top of the more traditional elements of race, ethnicity, and gender.

“When organizations describe why diversity matters in the human relations context, even when it’s viewed purely from a business perspective, they usually discuss how different perspectives from a diverse group of people combined together result in better outcomes, better products, and better services,” says Howard. “Why should it be any different with robotics? The challenge for companies is to figure out how to best integrate human diversity into robotics in order to make human workers more relevant.”

Silly or Sensible?

Some readers may be uncomfortable with the notion of applying the concept of diversity to robots. Some may even find that notion somewhat offensive or see it as diminishing or softening the traditional sense of workplace diversity. It’s true that broadening the application of terms like diversity beyond their current meaning can detract from their significance as applied in their original context. And we’re certainly not suggesting that there’s a moral justification for embracing diversity with respect to robots and other machines due to some kind of historical or systemic marginalization, for example.

But, in considering the applicability of “diversity” to the human-machine context, two points are important to keep in mind. First, the argument put forth by Howard argument is not that human workforces should be striving to diversify by introducing more machines. In fact, it’s the opposite. The increasing presence of robots and machines in the workforce is already happening. Howard’s argument is that companies should not be too quick to embrace a wholesale replacement of human labor by machine labor, because there’s a value in the synergies that exist between the two.

This brings us to the second point: one can look at applying the term “diversity” to the notion of humans and machines working together in the workforce as an homage to the value of workplace diversity in the traditional sense. That human-focused diversity has proven over and over again that companies perform better when their employees are diverse and when the organization is inclusive of that diversity. It only makes sense that the same should be true when robots and other machines enter the mix.

Related: Hollywood’s Real-World Lesson in the Value of Inclusion and Diversity