How to Save Your Job?

The Robots are Coming . . . Aren’t They?

Erik P.M. Vermeulen
May 5 · 5 min read

Late for work. Again. You don’t feel well. You’re tired. Stressed. The only thing you can think about is your vacation.

“Only three more months . . .”

And when you do get to work, there he is. Mr. Perfect. Always on time. Always bright. Always ready to go that “one extra yard” for the company.

Of course, the bosses love him. Who doesn’t? We all know who will get the next promotion, right? And it isn’t you.

The open-plan office sure doesn’t help. Forced to look at him all day. That suit. That smile. All sorts of thoughts whizzing through your head.

“What could I put in his coffee? Nothing too strong. Some mild discomfort. A few days sick leave.”

Is he human? Or a machine? A robot from the future sent to torment you. David 8 from Prometheus? Data from Star Trek? Ash from Alien? Take your pick. Science fiction gives us plenty of examples.

Are Robots Threatening Your Job?

But, let’s get real. Your rival probably isn’t a robot. He is most likely someone very much like you. He probably looks at you with exactly the same thoughts whizzing through his mind.

And the reason I know he isn’t a robot? Let me put it bluntly. Today’s robots suck.

Science fiction. “Fiction — Something that is invented or untrue.” According to Google.

And most of the robots we think of when we think of robots (David 8, Data, Ash, etc.) are most definitely fictional. “Invented or untrue.”

My Robot Story

Last year, the hosts of an event wanted me to give a presentation together with a robot. It was Softbank’s Pepper. Marketed as the “World’s First Humanoid Robot.”

We were supposed to show the world a glimpse of the future. At least, that is what the organizers said. Human and machine interacting naturally in a real-world setting.

It was a disaster.

The presentation was awkward. Pepper didn’t say much. It was anything but a joint performance. It was embarrassing.

Pepper was supposed to introduce me and engage as much as possible in the presentation. But nothing like this happened. No dialogue. No interaction. Nothing. Even the pre-programmed introduction was a mess.

Actually, it wasn’t even a disaster. It was a total non-event. Most of the attendants of the event I spoke to afterwards didn’t even realize that Pepper was supposed to be participating.

“What was that funny looking thing on the stage with you?”

The conclusion? We shouldn’t fear autonomous and smart robots anytime soon. Most intelligent machines are actually — for the moment — rather dumb. Your job isn’t threatened. You don’t need to change. At least, for the foreseeable future.

Be Careful… The World is Changing Fast!

But this is the wrong takeaway from my Pepper story. We should take automation and robots very seriously today.

Here are four reasons:

  • The speed of technological change is accelerating and the scope and reach of emerging technologies in the future cannot be predicted. And they — certainly — should not be underestimated.
  • Learn from history. New technology has always had a significant impact on work. Remember the Industrial Revolution? Jobs simply disappeared. I have written before about my grandfather. He was a glass blower. There are not too many of those around now.
  • Just look around at what is happening right now. New digital technologies are already disrupting the job market. It isn’t about some imagined future. It’s about being aware of how much things are currently changing.
  • And there is more. My wife owns a restaurant. It is very difficult to find qualified personnel these days. The same is true in health care and construction. Drivers, cashiers, kitchen staff. There is a shortage of employees for these jobs these days. And that is the point. The development of “smarter” robots that can automate these jobs will help everyone. This is especially true when there are staff shortfalls and demographic issues. Japan is perhaps the most obvious example and it is no coincidence that Japan has always invested heavily in robotics and related technologies.

But we shouldn’t only consider manual labor. The impact of automation on knowledge work is enormous.

We live in an age of over-work, information overflow and burn-outs. Most knowledge workers are longing for help. Any kind of help. And machines — even today’s dumb machines — can most definitely help. Think of technology assisted dispute resolution, the automation of insurance claims, or AI-supported contract review and financial advice.

In all of these examples the machine can perform a routinized (dumb) task more effectively and much quicker than a human. Freeing the human to do those things that a machine can’t do (yet). Like engaging conference presentations.

Learning to Love Robots

So, let me put it like this.

Everyone needs a rival. A Mr Perfect. Competition makes us better. If not always happier.

Someone or something that pushes us forward. Makes us try that little bit harder. And become a little bit better at whatever it is that we do.

Robots will not be our rivals. They are a long way from that. But they can do something similar. In an accelerating world, they can help create a space in which all of us will have the opportunity to improve ourselves and become better at whatever it is that we do.

I don’t say we will be any less busy. Just that we will be busy doing other things that matter.

Because robots give us the opportunity to outsource the routine tasks and get better at those things that are most human (and too difficult for machines to do). The things that really matter. Developing new ideas. Creating new technologies. Building innovative businesses.

Now that is something we should all welcome and work towards achieving. And we must prepare ourselves by embracing constant self-learning, disruptive experimentation and the nurturing of creativity in everything we do.

Digital Diplomacy

Technology, digital, and innovation in government and foreign policy

Erik P.M. Vermeulen

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I write about how the digital world is changing the way we live, work and learn.

Digital Diplomacy

Technology, digital, and innovation in government and foreign policy