During the late 1990s business and industry began to panic over the issues surrounding Y2K, which later turned out to be mostly manufactured fear.

In the chaotic world around us, it has become increasingly difficult to separate genuine problems from manufactured fear. And it is especially difficult to make plans for the future when we can’t properly gauge the severity of a legitimate issue we know we’ll have to deal with.

As we begin to wrestle with “2 billion jobs disappearing by 2030,” clearly a subject we’ll need to deal with sooner rather than later, it’s easy to get lost in the problems instead of the solutions.

That said, gauging a proper response is not easy. On one hand, dealing with the Y2K issue will seem like child’s play compared to this kind of massive job loss. However, throwing trillions of dollars at it, as we did with the 2007-2008 Global Financial Crisis, may indeed be a wrongheaded overreaction.

For this reason I’d like to talk through the coming era of automation and point out some of the hopeful signs I see for the brighter future that lies ahead.

Robots in the Tesla car factory in Fremont, CA

Parallel Paths – Communication and Automation

Automating our physical world is easily half a century behind the digitization era that was ushered in with mainframe computers back in the 1960s.

There are many parallels between the large robotic arms that we see in automotive manufacturing today and those early mainframe computers. Seeing big machines in industrial settings, with teams of highly skilled engineers operating them, makes it difficult for us to imagine an equivalent machine in our homes.

Going from mainframe computers to desktops that average people could use was quite a leap.

Transitioning from industrial robots to personal ones will be equally disruptive.

More recently, the transition from desktop computers, to laptops, to mobile devises has caught many people off guard.

With similar stages of mechanization, an equivalent evolution will take us from home-based robots to unusual forms of mobile automation that we control personally.

The Economics of Automation

Our economy is based on people. Humans are the buying entities, the connectors, the decision-makers, and the trade partners that make our economy work.

Without humans there can be no economy.

Generally speaking, when a person buys tools, it increases their capability, and by extension, increases the scope of them as an economic entity.

When a person buys a computer and becomes proficient at using it, this added piece of digitization increases their capabilities, their earning power, and their sphere of influence as a consumer. In general, people with computers earn and spend more than people without computers.

Similarly, people who own cars, homes, and businesses tend to earn and spend more than people without them. Ownership and control becomes part of our personal toolbox, granting us increased capabilities and thereby added clout to our economic entity.

Since the capabilities granted by owning a computer connected to the Internet can be far more scalable than owning a car or home, its influence upon economic theory has been largely underestimated.

We will encounter similar underestimations as we combine the scalability of Internet-connected automation to the capabilities of a person in the years ahead.

From Mobile Communication to Mobile Automation

Smart phones are far more than a communications device. In fact, we have only begun to scratch the surface of understanding the true scope of their capabilities. But putting them into the proper context, they are an extension of the capabilities of the person who operates them.

Over the coming decades we will see a similar transition to smart automation devices that we personally own and operate. They will extend our capabilities in ways we cannot yet imagine, and give rise to business models that leverage the hyper-human capabilities stemming from this shift.

3D Printer Model

As we look around we see 3D printers springing up in unusual places. 3D printers are a form of automation that has already reached the hacker stages of mid-1980s computers.

In the coming years, when we find ourselves needing a replacement part, we will no longer have to get the part from the manufacturer on the other side of the planet. Instead we will be able to print the part ourselves…. or so we’ve been told.

Printing a physical part to match the exact specifications of the one it’s replacing will require an operator finely attuned to the intricacies of this type of manufacturing.

As an example, not all operators will have access to the right materials. Some parts will require an extra smooth finish or added texturing to make it work. Understanding tolerances, levels of reflectivity, specific gravity, reaction to temperature variations, vibration, or surrounding chemicals are all points of consideration.

Printing our own replacement part is not likely. It will require far more skill and attention to detail than most of us possess. But finding someone close by is indeed a possibility.

So does human-plus-machine equate to greater localization? In most cases, yes.

Final Thoughts

Competing WITH robots is far different than competing AGAINST robots. When we add machine skills to the resume of an individual we end up with a far different equation.

So the coming decades will be far less about humans competing against machines and far more about how we can leverage them to our advantage.

We are still a long ways from creating Hollywood style robots with an emotional mind capable of making value judgments that we can rely on. But we are very close to leveraging machine capabilities in far more interesting ways.

If we combine the capabilities of a Transformer with the utility of 3D printers and the portability of a Swiss Army knife we can begin to see the possibilities that lie ahead.

Machine-based automation will revolutionize our world every bit as much as computers have.

To answer the questions I posed at the beginning, some of the fear of job loss is real and some of it is manufactured. But what cannot be lost in this discussion is the need for a rapid transitioning skill base where we quickly identify a need and train people to fill it.

Machines can become our greatest asset or our greatest liability. It’s up to us to decide.

By Futurist Thomas Frey

Author of “Communicating with the Future” – the book that changes everything

15 Responses to “Competing with Robots”

Comments List

  1. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Michael Cushman</a>

    Good point Tom: Robots as tools for creative solutions to as yet unknown opportunities. And perhaps on the economic side, societies will provide low cost or subsidize the cost of robots to give to those too poor to afford them, just like we do today with laptops. That could be the transition path until robots become more creative, learn faster, and solve problems better than humans....that's the transition point that boggles the mind. Do we blend together? Are people no longer useful? Anyway, I like your thinking...
    • admin

      Michael, If we look at the number of gadgets we now carry with us, such as smartphones, tablets, ereaders, calculators, etc, with each extending our capabilities, we are already beginning to see the early stages of "cyborgism" that you're referring to. Where does the human end and the machine begin? The next wave of wearable technology will simply lead us further down that path. Tom
  2. Spikosauropod

    I like the idea of competing "with" robots rather than "against" them. I must admit that I had not seen it that way. When you hire someone to do a job, you are also hiring their tools. If their toolbox includes one or more robots, that is just part of the package. I'm not quite sure how that will work in practice, but it is certainly a new variable in the equation. I once worked for a contractor who had never heard of a snaptie wrench. I saved him a lot of money just by showing him how it works.
    • admin

      Scott, Great analogy. If we continue the parallels between computers and robotics, we should ask "what's the Moore's Law equivalent" in the mechanical world? There may not be anything in the physical world that doubles every 2 years, but there will be an exponential multiplier. So what single component has the potential to morph quickly? Tom
  3. Nem Chandra Singhal

    Thanks for the nice article on automation. Its effect on human race may be far greater than computer as it may have remotely controlled robots also which may add some social trouble.
  4. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Dennis Buller</a>

    Good article. But I would like to see more discussion based on the fact that it takes capital to start businesses. Many times a lot of capital. Even if the cost of mechanical assembly robots and their associated software becomes much cheaper, I do not see "every house a manufacturer" like so many people talk about when discussing manufacturing printers. I see robotic assembly effecting "old school" manufacturing the same way computers effected old school business. Making them nimbler, lighter and more cost effective.
    • admin

      Dennis, If I'm correct, the driverless car era will lead to each of us not having to own our own car. I wrote about that here If we remove car ownership from the equation, most consumers then would have additional purchasing power to buy their own robots. So what kind of $40K-$50K machine could dramatically add to the earning power of an individual? What kind of freelance era would this new tech usher in? Tom
  5. Oladele Ayuba

    Google's self driving cars really demonstrates how well robots will be able to handle some of the most complex tasks that humans have (what could be more complicated than driving). I've been thinking of an abstract task like advertising (that might stump a robot) and I see no reason why, at some point in the future, a robot won't be able to look at hundreds of promotional material, read the content within certain context and produce something original based on the patterns it observed from others. (in the world of humans, we call this inspiration I think)
  6. Raymond Alvarez

    You have to be made of stone not to have been swept up in all the excitement of NASA's Curiosity probe - 22 minutes of drama to a perfect touchdown on another world. Curiosity was flown by computer. This SUV-size rover, along with its rock zapping lasers and other equipment, will allow NASA scientists to inspect this region that may have had conditions for life - thanks to the material that was transformed by a horrific collision of asteroid with the Mars landscape. Your comments are timely, Tom. What better example could there be for your thesis that machines are extensions of our capabilities - tools? Soon, NASA will be sending up more probes to explore caves. Robots are paving the way for that seminal moment when a human footprint is touched on Mars. Robots certainly enable scientists to carry out exploration with a smaller commitment of dollars. Yeah, all of these developments and capabilities are possible thanks to automation. You can take your prototype plans to a shop with a 3D printer and have a plastic or metal model made within a few hours, depending on the size needed. The 3D printer could make this the decade for an explosion of inventiveness. I might have to own a 3D printer before I own a robot. Someone who hosts these inventors showcases should demo a 3D printer.
  7. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Kaidaerspeaker</a>

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  8. Jay Swartz

    Great piece again Tom. There is a third consideration in your final thoughts; competing AS robots (i.e., supplemented human intelligence or SHI). While the use of the term augmented is de rigueur, it means more along the same tangent and not necessarily a revolutionary improvement. Supplemented indicates added capabilities. Using the 2030 event horizon, the advances in brain-computer interfaces (BCI) could usher in a period of SHI that has the potential to obviate the concept of needing a seed artificial intelligence (AI) to arrive at the singularity. Concurrent advances in genetic engineering and nanotechnology should play a contributing role. Memory is one limitation of human innovation where SHI has great potential. For example, imagine being a software developer and being able to immediately recall the entirety of the contents of multiple books covering the language you're using. A BCI that makes content available and searchable would enable this. This approach would make the speed of electronic data storage available to human thought. There would be no need to recreate human intuition, empathy and emotions that make us human. It is these areas that make true artificial intelligence an unlikely achievement. We're moving ahead on understanding and replicating logical thought, but little to nothing has been done to advance artificial intuition and empathy. Pursuit of SHI would enable technology to enhance human thought without having to replicate the more ancient parts of our brains that are an important element of humanity and our souls. This tack would also ensure, at least for a while, that no superintelligent machine comes to the conclusion humans are an inferior intelligence that has no value. We have met an ally, not an enemy. Jay
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  10. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>jianchao qin</a>

    Robots are far different from the competition and competing against robots. When we add the machine skills resume, we end up with a completely different equation. ---- I was quite puzzled, how to compete robots? I think we are more than just a flexible robot brain. . . .
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    Good point Tom: Robots as tools for creative solutions to as yet unknown opportunities. And perhaps on the economic side, societies will provide low cost or subsidize the cost of robots to give to those too poor to afford them, just like we do today with laptops.
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    Robots are far different from the competition and competing against robots. When we add the machine skills resume, we end up with a completely different equation.

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