By Richard Copland.
Without giving all the details away this piece called out the comments of Barack Obama in his final presidential address and the impact of the relentless pace of automation that makes a lot of good middle-class jobs redundant.
Across this and a series posts, I’ll unpack this technology challenge and the impact of robotics on the future of work and workspace as well as attempting to consider it in the light of the views of new resident of the White House. I recognise this is a substantive challenge.
Everything old is new again
Robots in the home are far from a new thing. If you have a central heating timer, even if its 40 years old, it’s a robot, it just (normally) doesn’t have arms and legs. And more complex robots, though still not in any recognisable humanoid form (although this is changing with the likes of Yumi and Baxter from ABB and Rethink Robotics), are common place in factories.
It can be argued that Humanoid robots are actually a bit of a vanity project for us humans. I’ll investigate this further in a future post. Even if you dream of having your morning tea brought to you by a mechanical butler, it’s probably not going to happen. But while I don’t believe they will ever have a practical mainstream use in the near term (maybe yes to bomb disposal), humanoid robots are extremely interesting if you like mechanics, computer programming or science generally – or are just being enormously amused and fascinated.
For those interested worth checking the Alpha 1S from Ubtech, which has 16 motor / servo joints. Ubtech is an award winning humanoid robotics “unicorn” whose founder, James Chow, wants to “take robots out of research labs and into homes”. His vision doesn’t seem misplaced as robots are coming at us from all sides. At the recent Aircraft Interiors Expo in Hamburg, the Crystal Cabin Awards included the GermFalcon, a robot produced by a US start up that moves through the cabin using ultraviolet C light to kill bacteria and viruses without using chemicals.
All this interest in these types of innovations is being successfully commercialised with shares in robot makers such as Fanuc rising over 20 per cent since November last year and the more traditional muscular factory automation specialists such as Siemens and Emerson upgrading profit forecasts.
All is not rosy in the White House garden
One view is that President Trumps “hire American” policy will be a bonanza for robot makers and automation specialists. Rather than take on US workers on relatively high wages, manufacturers will simply replace cheap labour in emerging markets with robots in the rust belt.
Robots and software automation were on a roll even before last year. Sales of industrial robots hit a record in 2015. As their dexterity improves their use is spreading from traditional strongholds such as automotive into consumer industries.
But it is premature to conflate President Trump’s campaign pledges about reshoring manufacturing with a step change in spending on automation. Low US energy prices, rising wage costs in China and a desire to simplify supply chains have all been factors. Changing tax laws may influence future decisions about where to locate production capacity.
Also, the technological strides are being made not so much in robotics but in artificial intelligence see and the rise of IPO’s such as Blue Prism. I’ll dive into this also on another future post on Bots to allow knowledge workers to work even smarter. Recent moves by the likes of ABB (forming an alliance with Microsoft) and Siemens (buying Mentor Graphics) suggest the big opportunity in automation is likely to be in collecting, storing and interpreting the vast amounts of data that manufacturing operations produce. These are the things that get the more traditional business technology services vendors and CIO very excited, and we see that today with the likes of Accenture viewing AI as their number one technology trend in 2017.
The ethics of innovation will be prevalent
With the rise of the robots marching towards the populism of Donald Trump. Artificial Intelligence has long fascinated attendees of the World Economic Forum. I touch on this in my earlier piece on bringing to life your virtual workforce. Considering the impact of AI and the potential that technology further accelerates inequality in concentrating the wealth in just a few people, the need to consider the ethics for AI as solutions become more prevalent.
There is a very real potential for digital refugees being created by AI. This could be the many thousands of truck drivers in the trucking industry which had revenues of $726bn in 2015 as solutions from the likes of Peloton and Embark begin to deliver automated driverless trucks.
With technology and inequality so central to the political agenda, according to Bill Gates “technology companies must view how do they help, like improving education, or how might they be viewed as hurting, in terms of shifting the job market”.
Technology change is happening quickly, is this any surprise given Moore’s Law and the Singularity Theory. The speed at which AI is improving is beyond even the most optimist people, pretty much anything that requires 10 seconds of thinking or less can be done by AI or other algorithms. That is making the debate about how to handle the huge profits generated by the elimination of millions of jobs more urgent as well.
Just as the last industrial revolution led to the emergence of the labour movement and the welfare state we need to think about the equivalent of that. In response, many are picking up on the idea of a universal basic income, the state will pay people the minimum that they need to live.
AI and robotics will augment rather than replace people, with employees using technology to automate certain data-intensive tasks while preserving their jobs. For me Thomas Friedman captures this challenge best in his new book, Thank you for being late. The role of government is not to save jobs but to save workers and that happens via community. Not at the national level, not the single-family level but at the level of healthy community, to make workers more nimble, more flexible and able to engage in lifelong learning. That is where we are now; those are the requirements.