Spring 2030: Robot Trainers and Small Town Mayors
The following speculative scenario is the second of four short stories developed in Autodesk’s Office of the CTO (OCTO). The scenario is the outcome of a project exploring how automation will shape the future landscape of our customer’s jobs, industries, and the nature of their work. The greater aim of this effort is to ensure that our nascent perspective on the Future of Work is made as relevant and tangible as possible, so that we can better understand how humans and machines can partner to achieve more than either could alone.
A small group of workers scuttle along in repetitive motion. One holds two steel members in place, while another solders them together, applying weld beads with inconceivable precision. A third worker then assesses the joinery to ensure there are no inconsistencies, before stacking the components neatly over in a section just along the edge of the fluorescent yellow box within which their task area is temporarily bound. Bearing witness to this choreographed chaos is mesmerizing. Oscillating entities. They move around in unison, but in their own curved functions. These workers are well-trained, highly skilled, and incredibly efficient. The outputs of their missions are always precise. Unmistakably precise. Their grip is always steady, their vision has been augmented to allow for virtual data overlays to guide physical tasks in real-time, and their command of the tools and large machinery around them, breathtaking.
Every so often, a silver-haired man — or what is assumed to be silver hair, given the shade of his beard – saunters over to check on the quality of assembly being produced by the group. The majority of the man’s hair and face is masked under a navy-blue hard hat and tortoise shell frames. His shoulders hunch forward the slightest bit. Perhaps because they carry the weight of decades’ worth of wisdom. The man appears to be the team’s supervisor. He also appears to be relatively unbothered, as if checking on the workers is a superfluous formality. Wanted but unneeded.
At this point, it’s probably helpful to mention that the site we’re on isn’t exactly a factory floor. It’s a construction site. One in a network of many construction projects that comprise the now eight-year-old Rust Road Initiative. And that team of workers? Well they aren’t exactly human.
“We don’t fully trust them yet, but they’re damned good at what they do,” says the silver-haired man as he walks over from another group of workers across the site to shake our hands and introduce himself. His name is Trey Kotkin, and he’s the Co-Bot Site Manager. Kotkin will celebrate his seventieth birthday in two weeks, but you’d have trouble believing this just by looking at him. Like many of his peers in this small town in the Midwest region of the United States, Kotkin followed his parents and grandparents into manufacturing, and started apprenticing once he graduated from high school. He worked his way up through the ranks, ultimately becoming a floor supervisor at the manufacturing plant, overseeing humans working alongside robotic assembly lines.
“Factory work is all I’ve ever known…but I had a feeling the door would shut behind me. I steered my children as far away from manufacturing as I could.” Around the 2010s many of these smaller communities were beginning to fall into demographic decline as the ambitious young went elsewhere, leaving places like Kotkin’s 9000-person-strong hometown with an aging population and very little young blood to boost the local economy. By 2018 the departures of large company headquarters, such as ADM and Caterpillar from other parts of the Midwest gave strong indication as to Kotkin’s fate, and the fate of his neighbors. So, when the local plant announced its closure in late 2018 workers weren’t surprised to learn that jobs in manufacturing were probably not coming back, and that even if they did, the pay wouldn’t be as good. “We felt pretty hopeless and frustrated. You do all the right things, work hard, support your family. Most of us had been able to put our kids through college on our union wages, and almost overnight we didn’t know what we were going to do about our retirements,” says Kotkin, who at the time of the plant closure was already 58 years old.
By 2019, few residents of the town could find steady work within a 30-mile radius of Main Street. Many of them had been born and raised in the area. The thought of uprooting their lives so close to retirement sounded absurd and arduous, if not heart-breaking. A few VC-funded startups tried to implement academies to re-skill workers and teach them how to code so they could find new work, but it didn’t really stick in this town where most residents were hoping to have retired by now. Local businesses could also no longer support themselves, because residents couldn’t afford the patronage.
No jobs, no money, and a Main Street that was starting to resemble one of those scenes from an old western film — broken and barren. This was the landscape the town’s mayor inherited in 2020. Lisa West had grown up around here. The youngest of three children, she had left for college in the early 2000s as a teenager and hadn’t had any plans to return. West’s work in the private-sector had initially brought her back to the region. “I guess you could say I was a robot trainer,” she says as if forcing her lungs to release the words causes discomfort. But that’s not embarrassment, it’s guilt. “I had originally gone to school to learn how to build worlds, I hated the idea that I was destroying them instead.” West who loved games like SimCity as a child, went to college to train to be a simulation designer. As larger factories were in the process of shutting down, West and her colleagues would be brought in to run simulations using AR and VR to gather knowledge from workers. Those insights would then be coded into machine learning algorithms to ultimately train the robots that were replacing humans all across the manufacturing industry.
“This town took a leap of faith with me, and I’m so thankful for that, because what we’re doing it’s not just helping us, we’re hoping to change the story of manufacturing to a tale where humans still have a leading role.” West was in her early 30s, traveling from small town to small town running training simulations. While the nomadic life was exhausting at times, it did provide her the benefit of broad perspective. As large factories were shutting down, West noticed the weak signals of a growing movement of micro-factories popping up around the Rust Belt. These factories had a fraction of the footprint of their cumbrous predecessors and they were flexible and adaptive. Hardware and software could be configured by uploading a dataset, so a facility wasn’t restricted to a single product or output.
At the age of 34, Lisa West decided she needed a career change. “And what better than a career in politics, right?” West offers, with a laugh. She ran against a fifteen-year incumbent, with a platform that seemed not just radical, but almost impossible at the time. “We were naively optimistic, but it worked in our favor over time.” The year West ran for office, 2019, was also around the same time that the success of grass-roots led movements had elected a 28-year-old congresswoman from New York into office. Over in Clarkston, Georgia, 35-year-old mayor Ted Terry had made the bold decision to open his town to Syrian refugees. West believed that small teams and small towns could drive change. “Rather than simply resigning to the future kind of just happening to us, I felt like we could play an active role in pursuing the future we wanted.”
Along with a team of dedicated peers, West conceived the Rust Road Initiative. It was inspired by the 21st Century revival of the Silk Road in Asia, called One Belt One Road. West and team proposed a series of new construction projects be built to better connect logistics systems and the flow of ideas and services between emerging micro-factories and their host cities in the Midwest’s most hard-hit region. The project called for mass implementation of smart infrastructure, the use of emerging technologies like robotics for construction, and a Configurable Micro-factory Audit to assess which former facilities could be repurposed as part of the new manufactory-service-network. The plan also proposed a funding model targeting many of the large corporations who had originally begun divesting from small town operations. As other industries continued to move away from models that required the ownership of products and towards the usership of services, the team thought — why not leverage a manufacturing-as-a-service model? Corporations wouldn’t have to commit to a single site or town. For a fee, they would have access to the entire Rust Road network, and as demand for particular products shifted, so could the nature of the manufacturing process.
The biggest draw for the Rust Road Initiative and for West’s successful mayoral campaign however, was the promise of new jobs, a frictionless means of upskilling the existing workforce, and a plan to bring a younger generation of workers back to the small towns that so desperately needed a boost. West reflects, “We understood early on that only those small cities able to assemble the right mix of talent, market focus, and civic cooperation would succeed.”
For residents like Trey Kotkin’s daughter, Angelica Lapeer, it seems like West’s vision is working. Lapeer was a Nomadic Systems Architect who, like West, had left home for college and didn’t really look back. She traveled the world a bit with her previous job at a global agency helping displaced citizens in local integration and resettlement efforts. Lapeer’s role required mediating the construction and rehabilitation environment, assessing how to best proceed with optimal technology solutions and very real resource constraints on the ground, and liaising between designers and builders (often local residents lacking emerging tools and skills). Her most recent stint was in Nepal after an earthquake.
“I decided to come back because I wanted to settle down, actually be able to afford owning a home, raise my kids around their family…” Lapeer still works as a Systems Architect, though now she oversees part of the Rust Road construction network. “We’re building the system as we’re using the system, so it’s been a challenge but a fun one. Our micro-factory network provided many of the manufactured parts for the LA 2028 Olympics! Looking back, we probably could’ve been better prepared to handle the demand, but what a great feeling to be part of something like that, even behind the scenes.”
Back on site, Kotkin and his fellow human workers are just finishing up their day. It’s about 3 o’clock in the afternoon. “I just need to do a final check to make sure the bots are good to work through the night, and then I’m happy to drive you downtown.” Turns out, Kotkin’s decades of experience overseeing robot and human teams on the factory floor translate pretty well to robot and human teams on construction sites. “There was a bit of a learning curve, we had to use AR goggles onsite for a while for training the co-bot teams…but we all get along just fine now,” says Kotkin, with a laugh.
As we drive along Main Street, Kotkin can’t help but smile. He looks over at us with a youthful sense of pride, like he’s holding in a secret that’s too good not to share. He doesn’t have to say anything though. As we look around, we see the steady cadence of configurable bots swaying behind a few of the faded facades of mom-and-pop shops turned micro-factories. The wider infrastructure efforts have spurred a local maker-movement in town, Kotkin tells us. On one side, children run along the pavement, stopping to make faces at the bots in the window. Further down the block, an electric tram lets off a group of commuters. And nestled comfortably in between all of this newness, a few elderly residents are sitting outside a coffee shop, just watching time move forward.
Jump to “Summer 2030: Microfactories as First Responders,” or “Autumn 2030: Rapid Recovery.” And, if you haven’t already, read the first story in this series “Winter 2030: A Metropolis in Transit”
For more information on this project, please contact: Radha Mistry, firstname.lastname@example.org