Chairman Ed

Connecting people, ideas and processes

Monthly Archives: May 2012

Depressed Robots and Workers?

At a Ben Franklin Technology Partners events last year I heard futurist Jack Uldrich explain how the field of robotics will grow 1000-fold in the coming decade. Hearing this presentation made me start to ponder the implications of this type of change and pay more attention to articles that related to the growth of robotics.

Several months later a flurry of news articles occurred when Foxconn, the company that does the actual manufacturing for companies like Apple Computer and produces its iPhone and iPad products, announced that it would be deploying 1 million robots by 2013. This article gave some reality to Uldrich’s prediction.

As I recall Uldrich did not offer any particular definition of a robot. My own imagination tends to think of a robot as something that has physical form and mechanical motion involved. I began to stretch the definition when the IBM Watson computer competed on the Jeopardy television program and successfully outperformed the two previous most successful contestants on that show. As I might imagine a mechanical robot having implications on the manufacturing floor, I began to imagine Watson’s successors having potential impact in the office.

Watson’s success helped it (and IBM) get a new job in the healthcare field. It is now in training to become a very powerful assistant to oncology doctors at Cedars-Sinai Hospital. A health insurance company, WellPoint, is the client for the project.

Although Watson sounds like a person, it does not have a physical and mechanical form like a robot. It is simply a voice that we hear from an invisible and distant computer system. It is generally placed in the category of artificial intelligence or AI.

In that same category Apple introduced for its newest iPhone the AI assistant Siri. While Siri is not in the same league as Watson in terms of the questions that it can answer, I find it interesting because it introduces this type of tool to a broad consumer audience and stirs the competitive pot for other major companies like Google and Microsoft.

In a previous post I mentioned the Stanford University AI course that was offered for free and that attracted something like 160,000 online students. This certainly shows the level of interest in AI and now there are a substantial number of people who know more about it from two of the top people in the field.

Related to that course two business entities, Udacity and Coursera, have been formed, and Cousera has received $16 million in venture funding. In addition, MIT and Harvard have formed an entity, perhaps in response, to similarly offer online courses. All of this means there is a lot more learning possible on a global basis.

“Everything will be automated, and all we will have to do is learn and learn how to take care of each other.” My one friend says this to me frequently. Although we are a long way from that, the blips on the radar screen that I mentioned above all seem to point in that direction.

But how will we handle all of this as individuals, and as a society. One of my clients in its manufacturing facility has three or four robots and several hundred employees. What will that facility look like in 10 years if the number of robots increases by a factor of 1000? This is a company that values its employees highly and did not have any layoffs during the recent great recession. How will it accommodate competitive pressures if others in its industry, without the same value system, use robots extensively to their advantage?

If we are all going to have to learn – new skills – new opportunities for learning certainly are emerging rapidly with a very different cost structure, but still the requirement of a lot of effort on the learner’s part. Will we be able to provide the government, business and social support necessary for people to move through these transitions and feel optimistic about their lives and the future? Or, will we, as the workers, feel as bad as Marvin the robots does in the “Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy” movie?