Hugh Cornwall, the original (and best!) lead vocalist of The Stranglers sang about the Rise of the Robots on 1978’s Black and White album. He predicted their growth, suggesting that they would want to become unionized and demand at least one oil break a day.
They have existed in industry for many years as YouTube videos of Fiat’s production line in the late twentieth century will testify. Even the application of Robotic Process Automation to the office is not that recent. I was using keystroke automation to demonstrate a proprietary version of Microsoft Office almost three decades ago.
The fourth Industrial Revolution is already here, just as the third has reached maturity. It is represented by “Cyber Physical Systems” particularly, Artificial Intelligence. Like its predecessors its rise is inexorable. As the novelist William Gibson famously said: “The future is already here – it's just not very evenly distributed.”. The form it will take is a moot point which we will explore later. But having read recently about a suggestion to “tax robots to the same value as the human effort they replace” (make of that what you will), it is perhaps useful to explore the previous Industrial Revolutions, the fears they created and the reality of what happened next.
When the first Industrial Revolution began at the end of the 18th Century, it shifted the reliance from animals and human effort to mechanized production by using steam, water and the first editions of machinery. A century later, the division of labour, added to electricity and automated production, gave rise to the second Industrial Revolution. It was only towards the end of the 20th Century when the increased adoption of the microchip, mainstream computing and advanced electronics, that enabled the automation of production, which gave rise to the Digital Age. The pace of change in the latter, the third Industrial Revolution, has been significant with exponential gains in all areas every year for the past four decades as it now reaches maturity.
With every advent of piece of technology, and then prior to its widespread adoption, there have always been fears about the effect on the requirements for the human workforce. From peasants revolting to recent suggestions that robots should be “taxed” to the economic value of the humans they are purportedly replacing. It doesn’t seem that long ago that workforce commentators were suggesting menial tasks and mundane jobs would be removed from most of society to enable us all to spend an increased amount of leisure time doing the things we enjoy most. And yet that was before the idea of a smart phone was even the smallest of twinkles in Steve Jobs’ eye.
The smart phone has probably provided the biggest efficiency workplace gains I have seen in my twenty plus years of kneeling at the feet of Mammon, but has the working day been reduced? Of course it hasn’t. In addition to achieving more in it, we actually extend it to operate outside of core hours. We are omnipresent and the speed and capacity of what we can achieve is breath taking in comparison with when I had my first fixed Carphone fitted by Martin Dawes. (not him personally you understand, but one of his very nice engineers). We are productive for just about every minute of the day from the exercise bike or treadmill first thing, through the commute (if you are old school and still have one) to the dinner table from what I have seen in most restaurants recently.
Equally, the humble spreadsheet, or more specifically, Excel, has revolutionized finance. Before VisiCalc was released (for younger readers, this was the first mainstream spreadsheet, launched when Microsoft were still just an operating systems company), it redefined roles whilst at the same time, removing drudgery of those employed. Previously, spreadsheets were produced on paper. They were completed in the same way we do today, but each calculation was completed by hand using pen, paper and calculators with every change laboriously followed through in the same manual way. Routine tasks were automated, errors were reduced and more could be achieved in the working day with scenario planning now much easier. Many clerical jobs were estimated to be lost initially, but the ranks of other roles (particularly the higher skilled ones) swelled inordinately, with a net gain overall as the benefits of efficiencies were realized.
So, the fourth Industrial Revolution is here, but what form will it ultimately take? Daniel and Richard Susskind in their recent book The Future of Professions, explore numerous scenarios of the replacement of human tasks. Not necessarily the wholesale replacement of roles as such, rather a reshaping of existing roles similar to the spreadsheet revolution of forty years ago. These range from complex algorithm driven applications to spot medical symptoms that humans might ordinarily miss to programs that track changes in legal documentation that I saw in action this week as I re-drafted our own Master Agreement.
At the heart of the fourth Industrial Revolution is Artificial Intelligence. The good news is that it can be sustainable and implemented ethically. So, just as the original computerization of clerical jobs reduced costs but fueled an insatiable thirst for processing power and created a whole wealth of intrinsically and financially rewarding roles, Cognitive Intelligence will ultimately achieve the same result. It mimics human thought and sits between “bots” and machine learning. It can be used to automate business processes, provide menu driven decisions in its simplest form or coupled with Machine Learning, take full responsibility for decision making in its entirety using complex algorithms and extant business rules, even if the latter are not currently documented. It enables highly qualified HR professionals to spend less time collating absence statistics using Excel (!), thus enabling them to focus more on the retention and development one of two key assets: their people.
The Stranglers suggested that the robots would be good workers who would not get bored, despite their predilection for regular oil breaks. Personally, even forty years on I think it’s a little too soon to be writing the demise of the human worker. By utilizing technology responsibly, there are significant gains to be had in the workplace and an opportunity to make work more meaningful in similar ways to the previous Industrial Revolutions. Don’t go and order that Versatran Series F just yet!