Archive for March, 2014

What will humans do when the robots take over?

Monday, March 17th, 2014

On the topic of robotics and its effect on employment and the economy, writing in The Times today, Matt Ridley raises the question “Will there be any jobs left for our children?”

Quoting Bill Gates, The McKinsey Global Institute and the almost ubiquitous book: The Second Machine Age by McAfee and Brynjolfsson, Matt agrees with the threat to mid level knowledge workers but has faith that, after numerous new technologies that have disrupted many industries, human beings will once again find occupations for themselves. The big question seems to be whether this will be in gainful employment, or the playful unemployment yearned for by Arthur C. Clarke.

Reinvention is what humans do well. I don’t see robots with a conscience, empathy, or a genuine smile for many centuries yet, if ever. The threat of robots to the human race is invariably overplayed. Let them take over the meaningless drudgery that consumes many human jobs right now and let humans do what they do well. We’ll all be much happier in the long run.

The Second Machine Age

Thursday, March 6th, 2014

Being the type of person who hates missing an opportunity to repurpose something, here is an article I wrote for the Blue Prism Blog reviewing The Second Machine Age by Andrew McAfee and Eric Brynjolfsson. In short: I highly recommend that you read this book.

Most people would rather stick needles in their eyes than read a book on economics—an academic subject based largely on opinion rather than science, and which relies on history as its most unpredictable guiding light. In short, a boring area.

And yet, in The Second Machine Age, Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson, two economists from MIT, tackle some of the most fundamental issues of our times and at least sometimes succeed in making it interesting, even exciting.

Yes, parts of the book had me glazing over. The macroeconomic middle section belabors points about GDP, income spread and considering whether Keynes’ theory of Technological Unemployment carries any merit, to a depth not justified by the conclusions. I would also allege that the book is too US centric, given the authors’ arguments that globalization itself is one of the challenges.

But, if you’ve read McAfee and Brynjolfsson’s previous book, Race Against the Machine, you will be pleased to learn that they expand upon some of the technological themes from that treatise—from the Google Car to Robotics, and Moravec’s insightful paradox that the things that humans find easiest to do are the ones that computers find most difficult.

McAfee and Brynjolfsson also discuss the outside chance that almost everybody’s job will be automatable at some point in the future. It is conceivable that science fiction writers haven’t yet tapped the outer reaches of real technological possibility into their ageing typewriters.

With automation in this second machine age, driven by digitization computerization and the Internet raging ahead at unprecedented levels of progress, what is the human response to this brave new world? Part macroeconomic study, part personal indulgence, part political thesis (with no loyalty to any particular party), The Second Machine Age combines anecdotal evidence and academic research to bring to life the challenges and some possible solutions—along with key questions about the future that we must think critically about. How do we govern our countries, tax regimes and political incentives? And if the new wave of automation delivers new wealth, how can it be distributed fairly?

I encourage you to wade through the difficult sections. This is really fundamental stuff worth discussing with peers and your kids. And it might just turn you into an economics enthusiast… or a politician.

Gamification goes out of fashion

Wednesday, March 5th, 2014

Some great stuff coming out of BPO Analyst, HfS Research lately. This blog post from Charles Sutherland, for example, points to BPO research that has concluded that gamification is no longer seen as a strategic way of improving BPO performance, whereas automation, and particularly clerical process automation is seen as having much greater potential.

2014: The Year of the Robot?

Wednesday, March 5th, 2014

Blue Prism Chairman, Jason Kingdon, continues his series of articles at WIRED.

A robotic workforce isn’t just about efficiency, it can drive innovations like mass customization. As Jason observes, we no longer buy a car unit, we buy our car. The market and its customers are very demanding in this respect.

He also challenges Keynes’ theory of Technological Unemployment. Automation, he argues, largely benefits employment.

Finally, he challenges CEOs in all industry sectors to consider whether they have made best use of robotic automation, whether this be hardware or software robots. How many do you employ?