Maybe robots should replace the workforce, after all (video)

Jimmy Kimmel, in his end-2018 Lie Witness News video, asks random people for their thoughts about the biggest fake-news stories of the year. These people admit they saw the news of the first woman astronaut to walk on the sun, Donald Trump wiping-out North Korea in a nuclear attack, and, well…watch the three-minute video.

With voters like these, who needs Russia?

Is it possible that it’s a good thing the U.S. unskilled and semi-skilled workforce is dying, and the robots are “winning?”


The robots are winning

AI disruption seems to have thinned the workforce for good. Now what? 


Where would we be if wheels were still square? If the Luddites kept machines out of textile mills? If the cotton gin didn’t decimate the pre-war Confederate workforce? Today, one has to wonder how many truck drivers will be able to find new work once driverless rigs rule the roads. 

With regard to the the long-term impact of automation in general, I’ve been ambivalent for decades on the long-term impact of automation on the workforce. In the mid ’90s, I spent a day with an engineering leader who gave me a tour of his workplace, a refinery that stretched for miles. He showed:

  • Pride in his control network, which bore early AI enhancements
  • Sorrow for the loss of most employees at the plant and industry-wide due to automation, and
  • Resentment of the coming “corpocracy” in which individuals lose their humanity.

I shared the same brand of ambivalence, publicly, in a column I wrote for Control magazine at about that time after a conversation with a senior engineer at another Big Petro firm folding 17 subsidiaries into one. I started the column ranting about corporate “destructuring” and “dumb sizing,” and ended with: “It’s hard to argue with the bottom line.” 

ReThinking robots

Likewise, I’m mixed about the impact of industrial robots, worth about $40 billion and pegged to top $71.72 billion by 2023. Companies choose to replace people when the technology is available because they’re a better-faster-cheaper way to go. I was saddened at the demise of ReThink Robotics, maker of Baxter and Sawyer, the industry’s friendliest collaborative robots, or cobots. (collaborative robots). And I was glad the company was quickly bought-up by Germany’s Hahn Group. Rethink, a small player compared to leaders such as FANUC, ABB and Yaskawa, failed not for lack of demand, but in large part due to technical issues, if this RobotReport postmortem is accurate.

Baxter (pictured) and brother Sawyer have a new parent in Hahn.

In better times (2016), I spoke with ReThink’s Jim Lawton, chief product and marketing officer, who extolled his bots’ rapid ROI (as low as 1.5 years) and quick installation time (under a month) as well as speed and flexibility. For instance, he told me of a Tier One automotive supplier that replaced 20 hours of manual labor day: “$25,000 for the robot, and a little bit for the grippers, and we’ve saved them $180,000 a year.”

Robots don’t call in sick, need healthcare, come in late or take days off. They do work when workers don’t want to, or can’t be found. And companies are bound by the need for competitive advantage and higher profits to use them if they’ll keep the shareholders happy. But again, the industrial workforce, once an engine of the middle class, is shrinking.   

The U.S. middle class: Doomed? 

Technology both eliminates and creates =jobs, but the former appears to be winning in the U.S. marketplace. 

As one Clorox exec said during a panel discussion a couple of years back, “every” manufacturing company is busy automating and “leaning-out” its lines. A Kraft Foods alum added that it’s commonplace for companies to replace upward of “100 people on a Lunchables line [with robots] picking up stacks of pre-sliced meat and pre-sliced cheese.” 

“Employment trends have polarized the workforce and hollowed out the middle class,” David Rotman, editor of MIT Technology Review wrote in the article, “How Technology is Destroying Jobs.” Since then, TechCrunch promulgated the paradox that “Technology is killing jobs, and only technology can save them” (2016),” The New York Times shared in 2017 “Evidence That Robots Are Winning the Race for American Jobs.

What to do? Thought leaders across business, politics and industry have since given credence to the movement for Universal Basic Income, a flat payment to every citizen, to address poverty and job losses largely incurred by technological advancement.

UBI has been advocated by the Brookings Institution, given credence by Fortune (no leftist-socialist totem), and promoted by Elon Musk, Richard Branson, and many in Silicon Valley, including Mark Zuckerberg. More recently, UBI generated headlines in 2018 in Chicago with a petition by city Alderman Ameya Pawar (@Ameya_Pawar_IL) to take the city Universal:

Chicago, future home of Universal Basic Income?  

There ain’t no “i” in TEAM

Henry Ford did it, McDonald’s did it, and now the collective, global technology hive mind is doing it: Standardizing business processes to advance the competitive mandate for greater productivity and profitability. I love to hear stories of happy employees, but below photo mesmerized me to the point of distraction. So I’m using it to illustrate a point:

The point — no offense intended to the editor who penned the caption! — is that companies can’t afford for their employees to be “themselves” in that we can’t have guitar players, poets or sewing circle meetings on the factory floor. The employees pictured are essentially identical, down to their garb (as required by sanitary food handling rules). Their jobs are the same, too: to comply with uniform standards procedures.

But if there’s no ‘i’ in TEAM,” there’s still something of a “we.”  The ranks will thin, but there will remain a critical need for creative human minds to solve problems, even at the line level.

Almost a decade ago I helped a manufacturing exec, Greg Flickinger, document a cultural transformation at food firm Snyder’s-Lance in Charlotte, N.C. His team reduced scrap 40 percent; reduced customer complaints 41 percent; and, among other good stuff, slashed production changeover time to save more than $300,000 annually.

The human-machine interface, writ large over time, points to great gains and equally daunting challenges. Let’s face it: As a species, we’ve got a troubling historic myopia, and an immediate need to reconcile longstanding issues relating to our technology and economy, or techonomy.



War over water? Believe it or …A.T. Kearney

War over water? If we can have wars over oil, why not water, farmland and other resources that drive economic development? It could happen, according to Nausheen Kaul, principal with A.T. Kearney, advisor to some of the world’s largest corporations.

Worsening inequality and aging populations contribute to global destabilization.

But it struck me how, based on the data they get from firms such as Kearney, how global organizations react: They’ve already begun moving to acquire or otherwise secure the world’s water supplies and prime agricultural real estate, Kaul said.

That was just one nugget from Kaul’s presentation on global economic trends. (My straight-news version of it’s here.) His main goal was insight-shedding, not fear-mongering.

What are the implications of this war-over-water business, beyond pure monetary gain?

There are a few ways to look at it. One is that that massive land-and-water grabs by Western firms will stabilize developing economies. Another perspective is that this activity will amounts to economic colonization and will fuel the conflict as surely as the British political colonization did…and will ultimately fail. A third perspective is that conflict is inevitable, and given the regulatory climate, Big Money in the West must do what they it does because regulations allow it and shareholders demand it; if Coke doesn’t gobble-up the world’s water and land, Pepsi will.

As global financial leaders invest, governments will continue to buckle under the pressure of aging populations and worsening inequality.

Natural resource and political instability, Kaul said, is already causing a “Global Resource Nexis” in which the interplay between the supply and demand of food, energy and water are driving some troubling developments. By 2050, 70% of the world’s population will be “hyper-urbanized” into cities, governments will buckle under the pressure to accommodate aging populations and technology developments will make or break efforts to feed more people, sustainably and with fewer resources.

Kaul presented solutions for how companies can prepare, but they’re all about benefits to business. Is what’s good for business always good for mankind?

I’d like to know, but don’t comment here; drop me a line.