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The futurist: Black Hat robots are coming


(Editor's note: This is the first of two parts.)

It’s ironic, this whole effort to work so hard to make working obsolete, or in the case of artificial intelligence, the effort to think so hard to make thinking obsolete.

But then it should really come as no mystery. Machines are far superior to people. Every worker brings their own set of baggage to the workplace, and officials have created countless laws to protect these workers, making the human side of work messier than ever.

For most companies, the daily headaches of managing employee-related issues, complaints, and lawsuits has most executive teams longing for a more manageable situation, and if automating employees out of their jobs is ever an option, they’ll jump on it in a heartbeat.

Discrimination is fine as long as it’s with a machine.

It’s no wonder that Uber, boasting a $50 billion valuation after recruiting literally millions of drivers over its short six-year lifespan, is now investing heavily in driverless technology to eliminate the very drivers the company was built on. But Uber is not the only one. In China’s manufacturing hub in Guangdong province, a team has begun constructing the first zero-labor factory, with plans for 1,000 robots to work on their workerless assembling line. 

Taking this line of thinking a few steps further, we are on the verge of having driverless buses delivering automated store clerks to retail shops that sell robots to other robots. Hmmmm.

So where do humans fit into this equation? Much like handing us a shovel and asking us to dig our own grave, our man-made machines are being replaced with machine-made machines, to replace the workers who made them.

No longer the realm of science fiction, we are less than a decade away from workerless factories, robots with their own bank accounts, Watson-like judges dolling out sentences in court, and having wars filled with robots fighting other robots.

Does anyone else see the massive ethical dilemmas looming in the background?

But before you go off and organize a team hell-bent on banning robots altogether, let’s take a closer look at the opportunity side of the equation.

The Foxconn Automation Story

Foxconn is the largest manufacturer of electronics in the world, employing more than 1 million people in its factories. They’re perhaps best known as the manufacturer of the iPhone and iPad.

In 2011, because of the rising cost of Chinese labor, Foxconn CEO Terry Gou made the bold assertion they would install a million robots in their assembly lines with plans to eliminate a significant portion of their workforce. But so far that remains an elusive dream.

While many of the $25,000 robots have been installed, they do not live up to the exacting standards Apple demands. Instead of replacing workers, the bots have been relegated to tighten screws, polish metal, and handle packaging.

Last month, Terry Gou revised his projections, saying the company would need 3 more years to automate 70% of its assembly line. Sticking to its original vision, he said the shift would replace people with machines and improve efficiency.

At this point, it's impossible to know if three years is a realistic timeframe and what percentage of the workforce, if any, will actually be replaced.

Understanding Dependencies

Like many other creatures in nature, humans are hardwired to be socially dependent. We need each other.

Very often the same people that are most helpful in our lives also create our biggest problems. There are no perfect people, just as there are no perfect machines.

Even though we can make machines that are far more durable and reliable than humans, there are no perfect machines. They will all eventually break down.

For the first 50 years after automobiles were invented, car-owners were forced to carry a toolbox along with them to make repairs along the road whenever something broke down.

Even with hundreds of years of machine-building under our belts, implementing countless new quality control programs like TQM, Six Sigma, and ISO 9000 certification, and our ability to design far better pieces of equipment than ever before, we will never be able to achieve a failure rate of zero.

As we add more and more technology to our lives, we will also be adding far more failure points.

In the end, it will always be people that have to clean up when technology fails …….and it will always fail.

Next: Mankind's 10 biggest disasters.

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Thomas Frey

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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