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Preparing for a Future with Robots

March 21, 2017


The media is awash with dire predictions about robots putting the human race out of work. A typical example is an article by Ed Hess (@HessEdward), a professor of business administration at the Darden School of Business at University of Virginia. He writes, “[America needs to be prepared for the] looming technology tsunami that will hit the U.S. job market over the next five to 15 years and likely destroy tens of millions of jobs due to automation by artificial intelligence, 3-D manufacturing, advanced robotics and driverless vehicles — among other emerging technologies. The best research to date indicates that 47 percent of all U.S. jobs are likely to be replaced by technology over the next 10 to 15 years, more than 80 million in all, according to the Bank of England. Think back to the human misery in this country during the financial recession when unemployment hit 10 percent. Triple that. Or even quintuple it. We as a society and as individuals are not ready for anything like that. This upheaval has the potential of being as disruptive for us now as the Industrial Revolution was for our ancestors.”[1] He’s correct about a couple of things. First, the United States is not ready to deal with an unemployment rate of 40 percent or anything close to it. Brookings Institution analysts Jack Karsten () and Darrell M. West () write, “Emerging technologies like industrial robots, artificial intelligence, and machine learning are advancing at a rapid pace, but there has been little attention to their impact on employment and public policy.”[2] That situation needs to change. Second, Hess is correct in stating that new technologies are going to create upheavals and disruptions — it’s the nature of revolutions. What is not clear is whether robots will permanently eliminate millions of humans from the workplace.




Robots in the Workplace


Robots, like ice cream, can be either hard or soft. We are familiar with physical robots, the hard variety like those depicted above. The soft variety are often called intelligent agents (or software robots). Both hard and soft robots are going to be found in the workplace in increasing numbers. And, as Hess noted above, millions of workers will be affected by the introduction of robots into the workplace. Some robots will replace workers and other robots will simply make workers more productive. Workers displaced by robots will need to be retrained and reskilled to work in the Industry 4.0 environment. The question raised by Hess and others is: Will there be jobs available for those retrained workers to fill? The pessimists say no. They believe the current revolution is qualitatively different than past revolutions in that more jobs will be lost than created. Optimists, on the other hand, believe, like past revolutions, this one will create new and more interesting jobs. Pessimists, they believe, don’t have the imagination to see a brighter future. Both sides make convincing arguments; but, trying to predict how the future will unfold is normally a fool’s errand.


The consequences associated with the pessimistic view are so devastating we must strive to create the brighter future envisioned by the optimists. It won’t be easy. Business leaders — myopically focused on the bottom line and blind to social consequences of their decisions — will continue to press for more automation in pursuit of greater profits. The logical result of this dogged pursuit could indeed be massive unemployment, social unrest, and political turmoil. Many analysts believe we will escape this dark future for one simple reason — it’s harder to replace skilled human workers than most companies believe. As a result, the most likely future to emerge is one in which robots and humans work together. Kevin Kelly (@kevin2kelly), founding Executive Editor of Wired magazine, explains, “This is not a race against the machines. If we race against them, we lose. This is a race with the machines. You’ll be paid in the future based on how well you work with robots. Ninety percent of your coworkers will be unseen machines. Most of what you do will not be possible without them. And there will be a blurry line between what you do and what they do. You might no longer think of it as a job, at least at first, because anything that resembles drudgery will be handed over to robots by the accountants.”[3]


The Cognitive Enterprise


“One of the most talked about business challenges,” reporters from IT-Online assert, “is how organizations work with cognitive computing, robots and other AI applications that collect and analyze data, and make informed decisions or recommendations.”[4] They go on to note, “One thing is certain, that CEOs and leadership teams need to ensure their managers are prepared to take full advantage of the changes that lie ahead.” In order to do that, they recommend business leaders do four things. They are:


  • Sharpen the Human Edge. “To achieve the right skill levels and capabilities, leaders will need to rethink their organizations’ talent development and coaching programs, as well as individual performance criteria. Managers need skills that will drive organizational performance and interpersonal skills to build teams, foster innovation and encourage new ways of working.” Including the ability to work with intelligent machines.
  • Rally the Troops. “Leaders must present themselves as advocates of change. Managers will be more likely to commit emotionally to the introduction of cognitive computing if they trust the leaders at the helm. Building trust will require clear and honest communications and calls for leaders to involve managers in the change.” I believe cognitive computing platforms will be the foundation upon which most digital enterprises will be built.
  • Chart a Course of Discovery. “CEOs and leadership teams should strive to create a union of managers and machines that does more than just automate tasks or augment managers’ performance. The most successful long-term unions will multiply the value that managers or machines are able to deliver on their own.” Caroline Ong, IBM Canada’s Cognitive and Analytics Lead for Global Business Services, writes, “We need to write a new storyline for cognitive computing. One that’s anchored in human improvement. One where we embrace the fact that challenges of a complex world will require a combination of people and machines working together, taking advantage of the strengths of each to move toward a more productive and better world.”[5]
  • Embrace the Unknown. “Leaders and their managers must be willing to experiment to identify machine uses that make the most sense for their organisations and their teams. A ‘fail fast’ approach will help them zero in on the higher-value opportunities.” At Enterra Solutions®, we recommend clients use a crawl, walk, run approach. This approach allows a company to assess quickly whether they are asking the right questions, taking the right approach, and getting the right answers. This approach allows necessary tinkering with solutions before they are scaled.


The IT-Online reporters conclude, “In the next five years, management and machines can unite. There is significant potential for intelligent machines to improve enterprise performance at the management level, but leaders must ensure that their organizations have the capacity to change.”




Adrienne Selko (@ASelkoIW) asserts, “It’s my contention that it’s the training — or re-training — of workers that will ultimately answer the question of whether automation will drive massive labor loss. But we’d better figure this out quickly.”[6] Change is always hard and it will be most difficult for workers displaced by robots. Society, however, has a stake in making sure displaced workers have a path to jobs sustainability in a world characterized by human/machine collaboration. Business executives, labor leaders, politicians, and academics all have role to play. Andrew Ng, a Stanford professor and well-known proponent of artificial intelligence, told the Economist, “Given the potential impact of their work on the labour market, AI researchers ‘have an ethical responsibility to step up and address the problems we cause.’” Hess concludes, “These issues should be front and center on the president’s agenda. Planning for how our country will adapt to the coming technology tsunami must start now. We are talking about a major societal challenge — preservation of the American Dream — as well as the future of work in the United States and the world.”


[1] Ed Hess, “Coming technology will likely destroy millions of jobs. Is Trump ready?The Washington Post, 8 February 2017.
[2] Jack Karsten and Darrell M. West, “How robots, artificial intelligence, and machine learning will affect employment and public policy,” The Brookings Institution, 26 October 2015.
[3] Kevin Kelly, “The Seven Stages of Robot Replacement,” Backchannel, 27 December 2016.
[4] Staff, “Prepare for robots in the workplace,” IT-Online, 6 February 2017.
[5] Caroline Ong, “Humans Need To Redefine Our Relationship With Machines,” Huffington Post The Blog, 21 June 2016.
[6] Adrienne Selko, “Let’s Settle This: Is Automation Good for Workers or Not?Material Handling & Logistics, 13 June 2016.
[7] “Re-educating Rita,” The Economist, 25 June 2016.

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