Creative Problem-Solving: What Robots Won’t Be Able to Do for Businesses
My friend Adam is the kind of guy who will laugh at my dumbest jokes. In what must have been a moment of sheer boredom, Adam pulled out his iPhone and asked, “Hey Siri, tell me a joke I’ve never heard before.” Much to his dismay, Siri didn’t just tell him a joke he had already heard — she told a joke that didn’t make him laugh.
If Siri represents the type of robot that’s expected to eventually replace nearly half of the U.S. workforce, I'm not worried. After all, robots would never come up with an idea like Spanx because they cannot fully understand what it means to be human. They can't relate to our insecurities or the awkwardness that comes with the human experience.
Now, the robots currently infiltrating factories and operating rooms around the country and the world may be a different breed than our friend Siri, but they do have one thing in common: When tasked with solving a problem, robots crunch historic data to determine the best course of action in the future. In other words, they weigh elements of what has already happened to offer safe, data-driven solutions, optimistically figuring, “If it worked in the past, it must work today, too!”
In modern business, there is a great need for safe, data-driven decisions based upon the past. However, when those are the only decisions a company makes, it will inevitably fail to innovate over the long haul. To avoid this, we will need to remember to put emphasis on being more human — as people and as companies — to succeed.
To Infinity and Beyond
Companies and the people who run them are understandably risk-averse. We tend to make the same or similar decisions over and over because we have a general idea of the outcome, and it’s safer that way. Robots are very good at being safe, but businesses also want to be disruptive, which by definition requires going outside the boundaries of convention and uprooting long-held beliefs and actions.
The most successful companies are the ones that pursue “bad ideas” because that requires traveling down paths that make everyone else too uncomfortable. These companies start out with something ridiculous that would never sell, and in spite of the jeers of their competitors, they end up creating products the world has never seen before.
In today’s business world where competition is fierce, new companies launch at breakneck speeds, and consumer expectations evolve (and increase) by the day. Consequently, companies need a level of creative problem-solving that only humans can provide.
How Humans Prevail
Robots might be able to put doors on car frames (though not quite as well as humans, according to Elon Musk), autonomously vacuum floors, or even tell a lousy joke, but if you ask me, there are three realms in business where humans should always steer the ship:
1. Product Design
Robots might have all the data in the world at their proverbial fingertips, but they can never truly grasp how frustrating it is to try and hail a cab during rainy rush hour or understand why people rent out their homes to complete strangers. What’s the point? Robots could never have created disruptive unicorn products such as Uber and Airbnb.
The most successful companies design products that solve universal problems — or at least those faced by large swaths of humanity. These might even be problems we don’t know we have. Because robots will never know what it feels like to be human, they’ll have extreme difficulty pinpointing which problems that pester us on a daily basis are worth solving.
At the end of the day, no robot-driven number crunching and social monitoring will ever deliver a fully baked billion-dollar company. I believe this will always require human-driven, creative problem-solving.
2. Advertising and Marketing
Siri couldn’t even sell my friend Adam a decent joke, so what hope do robots have in selling products to picky, discerning consumers? The best marketing incites an emotion within its audience, and every logo, ad, website, and blog post aims to spark a connection with consumers on a human level.
That’s not to say robots can’t communicate effectively. For example, consider chatbots that can be mistaken for a real person — at least from behind a keyboard. As we spend more and more time communicating with artificial intelligence, however, I strongly believe that consumers will increasingly crave genuine, authentic connections with other humans. The brands that can connect with these consumers will find success.
In addition, there is now AI that can design attractive websites. I’m sure they can put visuals and copy together in a way that passes as marketing, but I struggle to imagine a future where these creations forge stronger bonds with customers than an experienced, talented human marketer could. I highly doubt a robot could have conceptualized the crazy-but-ingenious Skittles ad created for the 2018 Super Bowl that received tons of internet attention and media coverage. These types of “dumb” ideas are ones only humans can come up with.
3. Business Model Pivots
Without a doubt, robots are capable of sifting through data to tell companies when their growth is lagging, their industry is shrinking, or their business model is unsustainable. They can also point out which market segments are experiencing the most rapid growth and present lucrative opportunities. What they can’t do is connect these dots and illustrate where specifically a struggling company should pivot in order to be successful.
Can you imagine a robot advising Richard Branson to apply his knowledge of the music industry to travel? Or telling the folks at Netflix to focus on streaming instead of mailing DVDs and then sagely suggesting they create their own original content? Or showing Amazon the clear path from online book sales to becoming a behemoth web services provider?
These are all dramatic business pivots that require the kind of bold ingenuity only humans are capable of. And, as Branson’s story illustrates, the best ideas are often ones that come to us accidentally. The problem with robots is that there are no accidents; they’ve been purposely eliminated from their code.
Don't get me wrong — robots are improving every year, and the technology behind them has some exciting (and sometimes terrifying) implications. Over the course of the next few decades, AI will change the way we do business and revolutionize countless industries, but the technology still comes with some glaring limitations. Consider the motto of the British Special Air Service: “Who Dares Wins.” After all, playing it safe can only get you so far in business and in life.