The rise of the machines comes with a big payoff

With all the algorithmically-driven convenience in our lives today, it’s sometimes hard to remember that we are still in the early days of a cultural shift that will see us increasingly interacting and building relationships with machines.

Sure, robots have been working side-by-side with humans in factories for decades. It’s not the machines that are new; it’s what the machines can do. Rapid advances in machine learning and processing power are producing machines that can perform jobs that the designers of those early factory robots had only envisioned.

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And so naturally, we will be struggling with our comfort level as we get better acquainted with the machines in our lives. I won’t deny that stories like this Associated Press piece looking at the increasing number of jobs that robots will be doing can be anxiety-producing. From the AP story:

The Boston Consulting Group predicts that investment in industrial robots will grow 10 percent a year in the world’s 25-biggest export nations through 2025, up from 2 percent to 3 percent a year now. The investment will pay off in lower costs and increased efficiency.

Robots will cut labor costs by 33 percent in South Korea, 25 percent in Japan, 24 percent in Canada and 22 percent in the United States and Taiwan. Only 10 percent of jobs that can be automated have already been taken by robots. By 2025, the machines will have more than 23 percent, Boston Consulting forecasts.”

But I take a rosier view. Ideally, the trend of robots and machines taking on tasks for which they’re well-suited — repetitive jobs, jobs heavy on calculating, jobs requiring vast memory — will free up workers to tackle jobs more suited to human intuition and experience. The change won’t be seamless and it will require the rallying of education systems in countries like the United States to ensure that the human workforce is up for the upgrade, but overall it will be a win for the economy.

The key to success is marrying the best talents of humans with the best capabilities of the machines, as BloomReach wrote about recently in the eBook, “Why Can’t We Be Friends: The Case for Man + Machine.” Rather than leading to a world where machines take jobs from humans, I tend to see the future playing out more the way Cynthia Breazeal, of MIT’s Media Lab has described it.

Robots, she says, are all about personal amplification; about making humans better at the work they do; about being helpers.

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In the end, by taking factory jobs, robots could help build momentum for a manufacturing movement in the United States. True, the new manufacturing plants will have fewer humans on the factory floors. But manufacturing, and advanced manufacturing in particular, create other jobs beyond the factory floor — jobs in supply-chain management and operations, jobs in designing the systems that run the factory, jobs marketing and selling the products produced.

It’s a halo effect that I explored in a series of stories in the San Jose Mercury News a couple of years ago.

As I said, it’s early days and anxiety is to be expected. Change often brings anxiety. But it also brings progress — and in that regard we’re headed in the right direction.

Robot photo by Peyri Herrera  published under Creative Commons license, illustration courtesy of BloomReach.

Mike Cassidy is BloomReach’s storyteller. Contact him at mike.cassidy@bloomreach.com; follow him on Twitter at @mikecassidy.