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Let's Talk About Spaceships

The following blog post is courtesy of our board member David Creelman.  He explores the impact of increasingly sophisticated robotics on the future of hourly jobs.  Readers may also want to check out this recent article from the Atlantic Monthly regarding one American case study of how the tough management decisions get made regarding the trade off between workers and robots.

The 1950s and 60s were full of dreams of spaceships, ray guns and robots.  Spaceships and ray guns won't have a lot to do with your business, but the robots are beginning to appear in ways that will ultimately transform the hourly workforce.

The robots are creepier than imagined in traditional science fiction.  Heli-swarms and hellish big dogs are both impressive and oddly frightening. The lesson is not that you'll be greeted in Wal-Mart by a buzz of intelligent mini-copters but that the technology has reached a point where we can create smart, coordinated, highly mobile robots. The underlying technology is not fantastically expensive and it is only a matter of time when robots, like smart phones, become ubiquitous. Many, maybe even most, of the hourly jobs that exist today will be replaced or transformed by robots.

Big Dog Robot

A hint of the potential for transformation comes not from a robot but simply a humble tablet that promises to replace a significant percentage of restaurant waiters.  Perhaps half of a waiter's job is taking orders and collecting payment. Those tasks are done much more cheaply, and probably slightly better, by a tablet.  Cheap computing and cheap communication will be enough to take jobs away from a lot of waiters. Cheap computing, communication and robotics will take jobs from many more.

The business implication is to keep an eye on opportunities to redesign how work is accomplished with the help of cheap robots. Some will argue that robots in the workplace is not a new phenomenon, but computers in the workplace were not a new phenomenon in the 1960s but their impact was limited. We've seen what cheap ubiquitous computers do to the world. We can expect a similar transformative effect as these robots swarm out of the laboratories.

If you could design your processes from the ground up based around robot swarms rather than hourly workers what would they be like?

For workers, the implications seem disturbing. If robots take all the jobs, what will be left for people to do? The history of economics is encouraging in this regard. Somehow we eliminated almost all the jobs in agriculture which employed the vast bulk of the population and didn't end up with mass unemployment.  Yet, it could be a tough time of transition.

For all of us the lesson is that the world is shifting once again. It is still a decade away but the workplace will be reinvented by the rise of the robots. We must be agile, coordinated and intelligent–just like these new robots who we will be sharing the workplace with.

The conclusion of the Atlantic article is that managers are squeezed between shareholder expectations, foreign competition, and humane concerns.  In this article, it's the more educated workers who can manage the machines whose job security is more certain.  Is it the responsibility of organizations to invest in the development of workers vs. replacing them with more cost effective machines?

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