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Robots, Algorithms and A.I., Oh My! To the Land of Oz, or the Witch’s Castle?

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Robots, Algorithms and A.I., Oh My! To the Land of Oz, or the Witch’s Castle?

In case you haven’t had time to read my colleague Paul Roehrig’s excellent post on the fear of technological dystopia,...

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In case you haven’t had time to read my colleague Paul Roehrig’s excellent post on the fear of technological dystopia, do yourself a favor. Read it.  It’s terrific. 

To quote the inimitable Dr. Roehrig: “In some corners, there’s a palpable and growing sense of dread about technology and the future of work. ‘Machines are coming to take our jobs, shake our communities, and change our modern way of life (right)?’ Well, no. There are many reasons, but for starters consider that we’re all still waiting for daily shuttles to the moon, warp drive, and George Jetson flying cars. That future hasn’t materialized. Similarly, the Terminator will not be chasing our kids around.”

Any casual reader of the popular press would most certainly be forgiven for suffering from an acute case of buzzword overload, and it’s no wonder there’s a certain fear-factor involved.   Images of Dorothy hastening her step through the forest in in the Wizard of Oz come to mind: “Robots, Algorithms and A.I. OH MY!”

From a future of work perspective, the bottom line is this: What changes are happening, and what should we be doing about them?  Is the journey one to an amazing Land of Oz, or does it lead to the proverbial Witch’s Castle? 

Whether it’s robots, machine learning, artificial intelligence, 3D printing, or IoT: there’s many buzz words used about automation. Effectively they point to the same theme: processes are becoming digital, instrumented, analyzed, and increasingly operated by smart machines and code instead of humans. 

It’s important to note that the fear factor is a snapshot in time: It’s the jobs of 2015 that we see changing and being taken over by robots, but it’s really important to also note the NEW jobs that will be created by technology.  We can see the examples of jobs in jeopardy easily enough: being a “good enough” language interlocutor going up against Google Translate, or a truck driver who’s bot-battlin’ with a not-too-distant version of Mercedes’ Future Truck 2015.  Even robo-advisors like Betterment and Wealthfront are taking aim at highly-paid personal wealth advisors by targeting Gen Y/Millenial HENRYs (High Earning, Not Rich Yet).   And – of course – “Jeopardy!” is in Jeopardy... Even a machine now tells you if your job will be done by a machine.

What happens as a result?  Will people – and their rote, repetitive jobs –quickly move to something more human in scale.  And would the “interaction” between promised by the new technology actually come to pass?  The flip side of this, of course, is whether the new technology actually shackles us ever tighter to a constant 24x7, “scrambled egg” work/life integration.  If you love what you do, that may not be a bad thing at all.  But for those without choice, racing ahead of machines looks – well, dreary and desperate, in-extremis.  In a recent TD Ameritrade ad – clearly meant as a “counter” to the aforementioned robo-advisors – a trader wealth manager showing all of TD’s whiz-bang mobile app-ery is asked “you work so late, I guess you don’t get to see your family very much”.  To which the trader replies: “I see them all the time. [Turning to a cute little girl in a tutu in the corner of the office, ostensibly his daughter] Have you finished your derivative trading model yet?”

If we didn’t have to work anymore, what would we do?  We hear a lot about the “underemployed” – those that have just stopped looking for work that fall off the unemployment radar, or those juggling multiple occupations in the gig-economy, or “the gig-gig economy”. 

Would robots free us to be “human”?  With history as our guide, consider the concept of “Free Time”.  It wasn’t really until the advent of the Industrial Revolution that enough leisure time materialized for things like organized sports started to become commonplace, let along watching sports as a spectator, or talking about sports (hello ESPN!), or selling replicas of shirts that sports players wear, or marketing the images of the shirts that the sports players wear. 

My colleague Ben Pring went further, making the case the sports market wouldn’t have been possible without the invention of the lawnmower by Edwin Budding. Imagine a conversation between the $500 billion global sports industry, and History: “Thank you for inventing the concept of free time...” said Sports.  “You’re welcome”, replied the Industrial Revolution. 

Take 3D printing: Will it break the mold, or lead to “creative destruction”?  In the case of 3D printing, the manufacturing industry is likely to be substantially impacted.  The biggest job losses will be in unskilled, mass-manufacturing (esp. China). 

But it is also very likely to create new onshore jobs, or bring old ones back from abroad.  With localized production and customer-centered design, it will also likely alter the historically cozy relationship between retail and CPG: if you can “make” something at the same site you sell it, why do you need a downstream “peddler” of your Thing? Foods, medicines: anything liquid of powder can be printed – who needs Mr. Gower the druggist, let alone CVS? Imagine a post-petroleum world, where gas stations merged with a paper printing chain like Kinkos for local manufacturing sites: 3D printing goop goes in, make the “thing” at scale, and then waste materials are recycled back out again based on their supply chain.

Consider the Internet of Things, in which sensors are beginning to totally digitize and automate processes in a straight-through data flow. Those companies that harness these types of digital technologies to recombine and drive innovation in their business processes will out-compete those who can’t—or don’t—for years. For example, a biotech firm searching for cancer cures can use robotic mass-spectrometers that work round the clock to generate volumes of data analyzing blood and tissue. But that’s where the skilled humans take over, using the technology as a powerful force-multiplier for their work: biochemists use the math the machines produce as a powerful tool that generates a hypothesis, allowing them to investigate its true viability.

In sum: don’t fear the Bot (or the IoT, or 3D printing).  It’s not to say that there won’t be significant disruptions along the way.  Like Dorothy making her way to the Land of Oz, there’s likely to be a few detours off the yellow brick road to the witch’s castle, or through the spooky forest.  Staying prepared and confident in our ability to use the new tools of the digitized future to drive the outcome we want is the thing to focus on, not fear of the buzzwords.


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