For Christmas Santa Claus brought me an iRobot Roomba 650 vacuum cleaner. It’s fabulous. I’m really not sure I’ve received as good a present since I got “The Osmonds Live” in 1972! Now, you may be amongst the 10 million folks around the world who, according to iRobot, already have one , and if so, what I’m about to bloviate about may be old news, but to the vast majority of folks who haven’t yet joined the robot revolution all I have to say is “jump on in, the water’s fine!”
As no doubt you’ve noticed, and what we frequently write about here at FOW.com, there’s a lot of angst in the ether about the “rise of the robots”. What so much of it misses though is that the robots are here to help us, not replace us, or enslave us. Sure “robotics” has replaced jobs – just as software has replaced jobs – and will continue to do so. Even though Ned Ludd didn’t buy a ticket, that train left the station a long time ago. But software and robots have also enhanced millions of jobs and made the task that the person does more interesting and more valuable. We may have a rose tinted view of the “middle class” jobs that existed on the production lines and factories of the 1890’s and the 1950’s, but most of those jobs were, if we’re being honest, pretty terrible and soul destroying. Only someone who never did them could ever be nostalgic for them. I remember a summer job I had as a student packing widgets into a box; six weeks felt like sixty years! This really spoke to me back then, as it does now.
Why would we want to stop our robots help us avoid “awful boring jobs”? Let’s face it; loads of modern, middle class, “white collar” jobs are awful and boring too, which London School of Economics Professor David Graeber has written about here http://strikemag.org/bullshit-jobs/
My Roomba is helping me avoid sweeping the floor every evening; an awful boring job. What’s not to love? Hey, iRobot, hurry up and invent that robot that can clean my gutters, wash my windows, and especially urgent, plow my drive! (My house, here in Massachusetts, is currently under 3ft of snow!)
“Renato” slides around the house on a seemingly drunken, illogical course, and shows up a couple of hours later at home base, with a container full of dust and dirt. Yikes, I thought we had a pretty spotless house, but maybe we’ll end up featured on this … http://www.channel4.com/programmes/how-clean-is-your-house
As I say, what’s not to love? Now, as you are of course thinking, that sounds all well and good for you (you capitalist pig), but what about your lovely cleaning lady, Renee; what does she think about it all? (BTW; now you can see why our Roomba is called “Renato” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m7EnYrW0oQM). Is she worried she’ll be out of a job soon? Is she secretly dripping bleach into Renato to try and rot its brain? Nope. She went out and bought one for her home! So she doesn’t have to sweep her floor every evening. Now she can do less vacuuming and do some of the thousand other things that still need doing.
It’s complicated isn’t it, this progress thing …
Technology giveth and technology taketh away.
The real issue “we” have – as individuals, businesses, governments, societies – is to come up with ways of monetizing our time better, with activities that are less awful and boring. We shouldn’t focus on stopping the robots do the awful boring things for us but instead focus on thinking up higher order, higher value things that will make our lives better and richer.
Helen Greiner, founder of iRobot says in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs magazine http://www.foreignaffairs.com/google-domestic-feb15?cid=ppc-google-us-branded that “once you have a Roomba in your home, you change your mind (i.e. stop fearing robots). You see what it’s going to do for you. Once robots are delivering your packages in 30 minutes rather than you having to wait a whole day, I think people will start to see them as useful devices rather than world-ending devices”.
My colleague, Rob Brown, has just published this great report http://www.foreignaffairs.com/google-domestic-feb15?cid=ppc-google-us-branded about the impact robots are having on enterprise work, which is full of great data and great perspectives.
My advice, get yourself a Roomba, think of those better things to do, learn to stop worrying, and love the Robot!