Would you trust orders from a robot at work?


For all the concerns people have expressed about robots taking over the workplace, a new survey makes it clear that most of us are ready to place our trust (and maybe our fate!) in the hands of our algorithmic overlords.

Data from Oracle and research firm Future Workplace shows that 93 percent of respondents would trust orders from a robot at work. Presuming that most of those people would follow the robot’s orders, this raises a big question: How can you really know that the robot ordering you around is actually that robot?

This is not an idle question. As I wrote in August, voice assistants and chatbots can be hacked and taken over. Why, then, couldn’t a supervising robot be hacked by a bad actor?

It’s not as if you ever have to wonder whether the boss you see in the office every day has had his or her mind taken over by a brain hacker. Artificial intelligence (AI) and machines, though, don’t have faces attached to them, so who’s to say what’s behind a computer voice? On the other hand, employees who challenge and question every order tend not to remain employed, so most are likely to do as they’re told, whether the voice is human or not.

Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley last spring discovered vulnerabilities in home voice assistants such as Alexa, Siri and Google Assistant that allow hackers to issue commands that are undetectable to humans. Commands can include making payments, sending messages and making phone calls. From there it’s a short step to taking over the “voice” of a voice assistant without the human owner ever knowing. Transplant that scenario to the workplace, and some crazy things can happen.

If we’re going to have robots making decisions and issuing orders in the workplace, there needs to be a way to secure and authenticate these AI-driven technologies. That’s going to take another level of AI and machine learning, including pattern recognition, natural language processing and automation. It won’t be easy, but it will be necessary.

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