robotimage sourceEvans, Mark. "CES 2007 - Asimo." 09 January 2007. Flickr.

We Robot: our Crazy Science Fiction Reality

February 20, 2013

We’ve got a board on Pinterest called “Signs of the Robocalypse.” We can hear the groans now: yes, we’re on Pinterest, and no, we don’t pin recipes or crafts (more like 3D printing and hardware, but we digress). Oh, were those groans about the whole “robots taking over” meme? You think it’s a bit outdated, more space age than information age?

Maybe. The difference is that in the 50s, we only dreamed about ubiquitous robots taking control. Now we’re living with the reality.

Bad Robot?

Just recently our local paper ran a series on robots taking over the workplace. In the last few years companies have reported increased profit and expanded business even as total employment declined. Sure, some jobs went overseas or dissolved due to less demand, but a lot of them vanished because a machine can do the same thing faster and better. Factory workers, travel agents, and store clerks are the obvious vanishing positions, but technology is encroaching on supposedly stable jobs like office assistants, paralegals, and accountants.

It’s not an isolated story; the rise of the machine is being called out all over the place, from Forbes to Harvard Business Review to PBS. It got us thinking: how soon will it be before these bots are called on to do our job?

At first glance, we look pretty safe. We’re a tech company, after all; we work on machines, not the other way around. But as we continued reading that original series, we found out about a new business opening up right in our neighborhood:

Automated Insights in Durham, N.C., draws on the computing power of the cloud to produce automated sports stories, such as customized weekly summaries for fantasy football leagues. “We’re able to create over 1,000 pieces of content per second at a very cost-effective rate,” says founder Robbie Allen.

Huh. We offer content management as a service. It’s currently written by a person, but how much longer will that be feasible at the pace that digital news happens?

We also offer hardware to our clients through our many vendor partners and provide maintenance services. But in the next decade or two, 3D printing may well cut down on the number of orders people place for parts or even whole systems. Cloud computing’s become a route many young businesses take rather than purchasing a server to keep up. Machine learning and replication would be a lot cheaper than human developers. With all these advances, will there be anything left for firms like our’s (or anyone’s) to do?

To Serve Mankind

Before you head off to join the rebellion or the Amish, let’s look at the good news in the world of robotics. For one thing, all those stats we mentioned above? They talked about economic growth along with unemployment numbers. Robotics have allowed businesses to grow leaner instead of going under, attain new levels of productivity, and increase output rather than continually shrinking. That’s all good news.

The thing about automation is that it’s always great until it doesn’t work. We need people who understand technology and its inner workings so that we can quickly get back up and running when things don’t go as planned. That’s not just the opinion of a company that makes a living from technical support; it’s true when a self-checkout kiosk doesn’t let customers use their own bags, or an e-commerce store fails to understand a request, or Google/Siri/fill-in-the-blank doesn’t quite have the answer we need. How do any of these experiences get better? Human guidance.

The other amazing thing that’s happened is the use of robots to improve our quality of life. Telecommuting and video conferencing have allowed many professionals to live far from their place of work, and that trend will probably continue with the precision of holograms (yes, holograms!) and other virtual technology. That kind of work makes for less congested cities and roads, and allows people to live closer to family.

It’s not just working from home that robots help with: disabled veterans and other impaired populations are getting a leg up, literally, from robots. Mech suits that allow paraplegics to walk again are in testing stages now, and a bionic eye transplant is expected to receive FDA approval this year. These are great robots, being developed by health professionals and technology start-ups.

Your Call

So, is our robotic future a good or a bad thing? Slaves to the machine like in The Matrix, or beneficiaries of a Star Trek world where technology takes us to newer and better things?

Maybe a better question is: are those the only two choices?

There’s no denying that technology is forcing change across the economy. Doctors are required to adopt electronic health records while Google wants to make self-driving cars standard. Hey, in prepping for this post we actually found a start-up working to create a completely automated hamburger joint. That kind of change is bound to cause friction.

But we’ve seen changes before in our 30+ years in business, and more importantly learned how to take advantage of those changes to the betterment of both our clients and our company. Our home city of Raleigh is growing by leaps and bounds, primarily fueled by a growing tech entrepreneur force. A lot of our clients wouldn’t even have a business without technology.

We have to adapt to change when it happens in order to succeed and grow. Some industries and jobs are bound to go away when that happens. Paranoia and fear will only compound the problem: finding ways to use technology to make our lives better are much more productive reactions, and can lead to many positive changes.

Our robotic future is already here. It’s up to all of us to make the most of it.