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Posted: May 29, 2013

The futurist: I’m a robot here to take your job

A look at a super-efficient future

Thomas Frey

In 1989, GE Chairman Jack Welch flew to Bangalore, India for a breakfast meeting with an Indian delegation that included Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. The purpose of his trip was to sell airplane engines and medical equipment to India, but the meeting took an interesting twist along the way. 

Rather than buying what GE has to sell, the Prime Minister Gandhi proposed that GE buy software from India. After looking at the amazingly low labor costs, Welch decided instead to outsource portions of its business starting with Bangalore’s first call center. This short meeting led to an outsourcing revolution that would dramatically transform both the Indian and U.S. economies. 

We are now on the verge of another business transformation, but this time workers are not being replaced by low-cost labor in other countries. Rather, they are being replaced by machines. 

Science fiction writers have led us to believe that humanoid robots, with all the nuanced skills and talents of humans, would be walking among us today. But rather than some Stepford Wife-like creation appearing at our door and telling us they were taking our jobs, the true job-stealing culprits have been far more subtle, appearing under the guise of automation, without any clear relationship between the machines and the people they’re replacing.

Hidden inside this menacing movement to display labor is a far more complicated shifting of social order. What appears on the outside to be little more than executives with blinders chasing higher profits may instead be mankind’s biggest opportunity. 

Over the past few weeks I’ve been sketching out ideas on how to think about redirecting the energies of mankind. Here are some thoughts on how this may unfold.

The Displacement Myth

One common fallacy is that people are being replaced by machines. The reality is that machines don’t work without humans. A more accurate description is that a large number of people are being replaced by a smaller number of people using machines.

Automated machines, robots, and other devices are designed to make people more efficient, but there is never a 100 percent replacement ratio.

Driverless cars, for example, will replace the need for drivers but will still require maintenance and repair people, operations managers, logistics people for dealing with failing vehicles, customer service people, etc. 

Pilotless planes will still need ground crews, station chiefs, maintenance crews and more.

Teacherless schools will still need course designers, on-site coaches, software teams in the background and much more.

Even workerless businesses will still require owners and support staff to direct the efforts of the business.

Yes, it may conceivable that the human replacement ratio could, on occasion, be dramatic, pushed as high as 1,000 to 1. But most of the time it will be far less. At the same time, a super-efficient society will have the ability to accomplish far more than ever in the past.

Moving into an Era of Super Efficient Humans

Today’s workers are being replaced by far more efficient workers who are capable of leveraging machines and other forms of automation.

Rather than having someone show up with a magical machine under their arm that can do everything you currently do, the machines I’m referring to are a combination of computers, software, communication networks, automated devices, mobile apps and the Internet. Perhaps there’s even a robot or two thrown into the mix.

Low-skilled workers of the past are being replaced by those capable of operating a myriad of software and devices, born with the tech instincts to master whatever new machinery, system or technology gets thrown into the mix. 

The bottom line is that the work being done today will require far fewer workers in the future. So what is it that will fill the labor void? What are the businesses, projects and opportunities that will open up once the next round of job-shedding begins?

Read more tomorrow!

Thomas Frey is the executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute and currently Google’s top-rated futurist speaker.  At the Institute, he has developed original research studies, enabling him to speak on unusual topics, translating trends into unique opportunities. Tom continually pushes the envelope of understanding, creating fascinating images of the world to come.  His talks on futurist topics have captivated people ranging from high level of government officials to executives in Fortune 500 companies including NASA, IBM, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Unilever, GE, Blackmont Capital, Lucent Technologies, First Data, Boeing, Ford Motor Company, Qwest, Allied Signal, Hunter Douglas, Direct TV, Capital One, National Association of Federal Credit Unions, STAMATS, Bell Canada, American Chemical Society, Times of India, Leaders in Dubai, and many more. Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Tom spent 15 years at IBM as an engineer and designer where he received over 270 awards, more than any other IBM engineer.

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