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Your life, with robots

Let’s continue our examination of robotics, begun here last week.

Donald Trump wants to bring basic jobs back to America. He thinks assembly-line workers, coal-miners etc should be Americans. His grand idea seems to be that the jobs will come back by slapping tariffs on foreign products coming into the country. If only he’d ever done Economics 101…

The people who have taken the most jobs off everyone else are in Asia. So what are they up to?

Foxconn, the Taiwanese manufacturing giant behind Apple’s iPhone and numerous other major electronics devices, aims to automate away the vast majority of its human employees. It is currently one the world’s biggest employers, with an estimated 1.2 million employees. Foxconn is beginning by replacing the work that is either dangerous or repetitious. But it plans to move to almost fully automated factories. Last year, it said it had replaced 60,000 employees with robots in one factory.

In India, GreyOrange is a startup that’s building robots for a very specific purpose: warehousing. As shopping goes increasingly online, the world needs efficient warehouses. GreyOrange says it has taken 90% of the online warehousing robot market in India, and now has offices in 5 countries.

Back in Trumpland, the president also lent his support to cheering truckdrivers recently. There are 3.5 million of them in America. And yet, the future is very clear: self-driving trucks are already on the roads. There will be a transition period in which humans will work alongside automated systems; after which the automation will be near-complete.

Donald Trump’s policies, if seen through, are going to create higher prices for American consumers; and less work for the workers he’s trying to protect by choking off trade. What the president (and all of us) should in fact be thinking of is a world in which we have to co-exist with robots and bots. Those who make early investments in understanding the balance between human and automated labour will be the winners, not those who try to return us to a past world that’s never coming back.

One of my former colleagues at PwC, John Hawksworth, suggested recently that a third of all British jobs could go to robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) by 2030, starting with waste management, transportation and manufacturing. He also thinks no industry is immune. I agree wholeheartedly: how we are going to work with technology is a matter for every board, every CEO, every executive and every parent in the world. Right now.

As I have suggested on this page before, this will mean the rethinking of society itself. We will have to change our ideas on work and reward when such a huge chunk of jobs go to machines. We will very likely have to provide some economic safety nets simply for peace to prevail, for instance by giving people a liveable income without working for it (see my pieces on Universal Basic Income here and here).

But that will be part of the broader brush strokes on the canvas of the near future. What about you and your life?

Eric Brynjolfsson, Professor of Management Science at MIT and co-author of 2014’s epic The Second Machine Age, warns that the predictions made then are already accelerating beyond expectations. AI is creeping rapidly into professions that once seemed immune to automation, such as law, education, and journalism. Prof Brynjolfsson suggests in a recent issue of the Sloan Review that technological advances will displace or augment human minds, not just muscles.

The challenge, he points out, is not a “world without work” but a world with rapidly changing work. We have to not just replace the lost income for a bunch of workers; we have to prepare to do the new jobs that the technology will undoubtedly throw up. We can’t freeze in denial; we have to create a new prosperity that involves man and machine.

For you: think hard about the things that you and your children can do, but which machines can’t. Think about the role of creativity, empathy, teamwork, anticipation, problem-solving, and leadership in your daily work. We humans still have the advantage there, and may continue to do so. Does your work involve those skills? If not, it needs to.

What you don’t want to hear, but will have to: if your work is robotic and repetitive right now, it will be done by a robot pretty soon. You don’t have more than a few years to prepare your organization, your career and your family for a heavily automated world.

(Sunday Nation, 9 April 2017)

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