Steve Hopkins was telling me recently about an interesting law firm he’d come across in San Francisco – it’s called Robot. Where lawyer and junior partner Tim Hwang and his senior partners, Apollo Cluster and “Daria” XR-1029, work to merge legal and technical systems.
We discussed the time in the future when robots run everything. And it got me thinking just how much robots already do for us. For most people the robots that run things are unknown and operating below their level of consciousness.
But let’s consider some of the work that robots already do for our society:
- manufacturing – e.g. assembly lines for things like cars and packaging, quality control, building electronics components such as circuit boards
- call centres – e.g. automated voice response systems
- financial services – e.g. business decision support systems, straight-through-processing trading systems
- the internet – e.g. search engine bots or those annoying Twitter bots
- military – e.g. unmanned combat air vehicles (aka drones)
- home and industrial cleaning – e.g. vacuum cleaners
I’ve been personally involved in developing and implementing intelligent business systems for a long time. Starting in the early days of voice automation and straight-through processing of financial transactions in the 1990s, through to the present day.
A large part of my work during the late 1990s and early 2000s was automating business processes and removing human beings from business processes. It was a huge shift in labour from human beings to robots. Those were mainly clerical jobs where a computer with a decision engine could easily replicate the work done by people.
Consider the productivity savings achieved by many of those projects; for example one project halved the number of call centre operators through the use of automation. That saving was achieved by addressing throughput constraints in both the inbound and outbound queues.
Firstly savings were achieved through the use of automated outbound calling technology – not waiting for the humans to dial a number but rather having the system start making the new outbound call while the earlier call was finishing. It also improved throughput by automatically bringing up the data entry screens for the call centre staff.
Secondly savings were achieved by adding customer self help options at the start of the inbound call process and by providing support to move customers to online self service. Instead of a human being tied up on the phone for 2-5 minutes with a customer trying to ascertain their needs the IVR and the customer did that work thus freeing up the operators to take more calls.
Arguably these improvements through increased automation were not as good for customers as they were for the bottom line of the companies, nor were they very good for the call centre staff that became redundant. And many would argue (as do I) that shifting the business processing efforts to consumers does not always make for excellent customer experiences. But cost and process optimization is a fundamental business practice.
It’s interesting to consider what other jobs will be removed from people via the next rounds of automation. The jobs that will go next are most likely to be middle class and white collar jobs.
The jobs that could go include: journalists, lawyers, managers and supervisors, warehouse personnel, sales staff (if the sales are all online how many do you need in a store?). Fundamentally, if your job or substantial parts of your job, can be defined by means of a decision tree then your job is at risk of a robot taking over.
Welcome to the brave new world of work. What’s your plan to survive when robots rule the world?
Note: I’ve left out the entire area of robots for health since I don’t know much about it – but I reckon that will be huge too.