Time to Revolt Against the 'Robot Uprising?'

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Published January 27, 2014

| Entrepreneur.com

In October, when Apple announced its redesigned Mac Pro, the company boasted that it would be assembled in the U.S. This was a curious about-face for the Cupertino, Calif.-based tech giant whose success has been inextricably linked to shoulder-to-shoulder assembly lines in China. In addition, as the New York Times reported, at a private dinner in February 2011, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs told President Obama, "Those jobs aren't coming back."

Indeed, they haven't. And they won't.

According to statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the manufacturing industry lost 2.3 million jobs in the most recent recession. Since then, factories have only regained 526,000 jobs, a sad sign of Jobs' visionary nature. A promotional video on the Mac Pro's assembly clearly shows what led Apple to produce the new computers in the U.S.: robots, not people. An ambidextrous Fanuc M-710iC swings the Mac Pro's machined aluminum casing from station to station. The metal is polished by Guyson Corporation's blast-finishing robots. And components are placed on the circuit boards by Jot Automation machines.

Of course there are humans milling about, but not nearly as many as at Foxconn in China. When contacted, Apple declined to comment.

The growing use of robots in the workforce isn't just happening at Apple. From Kiva Systems droids fulfilling Amazon warehouse orders, to telepresence robots zipping through offices and conference halls, robots are suddenly everywhere. Though they weren't necessarily programmed to destroy jobs, some experts believe machine-caused mass unemployment is possible. According to a Sept. 2013 Oxford University study, computerization puts 47 percent of total U.S. employment at risk of termination.

Related: Google Gets Serious About Robots

Not to sound like a paranoid android, but it's 2014. Shouldn't John Connor be all over this by now, in an epic battle like in the Terminator movies?

Perhaps small businesses will take up the fight this year. Since the recession, small firms have accounted for 67 percent of net new jobs, and have created more than 12 million positions in the past 10 years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. While on a day-to-day basis, small firms undoubtedly view themselves as making widgets, brewing beverages, cooking meals or building software, but the reality is these organizations are also in the business of creating employment. 

Sure, larger companies like Apple and Amazon put people to work, but they are also programmed to meet investors' expectations. One of the most effective ways to increase profit is to reduce overhead. And wages are among companies' largest expenses, which makes eliminating personnel an efficient way to cut costs. That's why corporations started outsourcing labor to foreign countries a decade ago, and while they'll begin in-sourcing work to robots over the next 10 years. Long term, the savings of shifting from human to robot labor will allow them to attain their growth goals. 

Meanwhile, small businesses will scramble to keep up. But instead of joining the robot workforce, entrepreneurs can firewall their operations by cyborg-proofing their companies. According to the Oxford study, "occupations that involve complex perception and manipulation tasks, creative intelligence tasks, and social intelligence tasks are unlikely to be substituted by computer capital over the next decade or two." So the key to defeating robots -- in the movies and in real life -- is doing what they can't. 

The Oxford study discusses how robots are unable to compete with humans in areas of perception and manipulation, creativity and social intelligence. In recent years, workarounds have helped robots make headway in perception. For example, Kiva robots can navigate Amazon's warehouse by sensing stickers on the floor. But it's difficult for them to make adjustments. If a package is dropped on the warehouse floor, for instance, the droid can't pick it up. Meanwhile, social intelligence -- especially tasks involving negotiation, persuasion and care -- hasn't evolved yet, either, as anyone who has ever screamed at Siri can attest. 

Related: Intel Wants to Make Computers Think More Like Humans

To survive the robot invasion, small businesses need to maximize consumer reliance on these innate human abilities, as well as highlight them within their company's products and services. According to the Oxford research, companies that ply in fine arts, originality, negotiation, persuasion, social perceptiveness and assisting or caring for others are in the least danger of being overtaken by Schwarzenegger-like T-800 cybernetic organisms. Unfortunately, those with cramped work spaces or that deal in manual/finger dexterity are most likely to be assimilated by the borg.

But one thing the Terminator franchise has shown is that whatever people do to fight the future, robots always have a way of saying, "I'll be back." As a result, smart entrepreneurs shouldn't blindly rage against the machines. Instead, they should position their businesses to make sure that technology is working for -- not against -- their companies. Robots can be great for working in hard-to-reach locales, like the ocean floor, or under dangerous conditions, like bomb defusing. But placing them in easy-to-find settings like coffee shops to perform humanistic jobs like being a barista is counter-intuitive. Sure, the beverage might cost $4.75, but the smiles are free and have much more potential to keep customers coming back for more.  

In fact, in its quest to make the perfect cup of coffee, Briggo is developing an automated coffee shop -- a concept so efficient, you'd think Starbucks would have already invented it. No way says Starbucks Chief Executive Howard Schultz: "I cannot envision a time at Starbucks where we would have machines of any kind that would replace the people who are engaging with our customers." If you don't believe him, just check out the Starbucks app. While you can pay via smartphone, you still have to order in person.

Unfortunately, not everyone is as interested in giving their company a human touch. The Economist reported as far back as 2011 that Foxconn had planned to "hire" 1 million robots for it factory floors. But the Chinese company has also invested in a manufacturing facility in Harrisburg, Pa., upping the staff from 30 to 500 people. Located near Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute, the factory is building -- you guessed it -- more robots.

Related: Intel's Futurist: We'll Soon Be Living In Computers

This post originally appeared at Entrepreneur. Copyright 2014.

Portland, Ore.-based writer John Patrick Pullen has covered travel, business and tech for publications including Entrepreneur, Fortune, The Magazine, and Wired. Find him at www.jppullen.com.

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