Slow Robot?

Are robots going to take your job tomorrow?

Will massive unemployment due to robots become the norm in the United States soon?

Marc Andreessen, Tim O’Reilly, and many other prominent tech/Silicon Valley leaders fear/hope the answer could be yes and are proposing a universal basic income (UBI) – i.e. a program where we send checks to all Americans whether they are working or not – and tax the robots to pay for it.

I don’t agree with this thinking – mostly because it’s based on a techno-optimist perspective that robots (and AI/machine learning) are going to take over the world tomorrow. These guys are sincere but I think might be drinking too much of their own Kool-Aid. Massive change is coming but much more slowly than they believe (note: a UBI might be necessary but we are decades away).

At the same time, certain cynical research firms are issuing reports predicting fast coming massive job losses. They understand the media dynamics – i.e. if you say something reasonable, no one cares. If, however, you scare everyone with scenes of a Terminator future, then you get featured all over the web, TV, and print. This is what happened in the dot-com era – and it’s the very same research firms predicting robot armageddon today that foresaw fast massive dot-com dislocation. We know how that ended (in the short-term). And those firms cynically play this media game knowing that no one remembers how off-the-mark they were.

I’ve been visiting tech companies and talking about the 20-year curve between the invention of new technologies and customer adoption. While I’m a long-term optimist regarding the massive changes that robotics, AI, and machine learning are going to bring to our economy, I am skeptical about the speed of automation in the short-term.

In fact, there’s a common dynamic where even the most outlandish short-term forecasts turn out to underestimate the long-term change. The Internet today is a bigger deal than even most of the hype-generating research firms predicted back in 1998 and 1999. It just took 20 years to get there. The same thing is going to happen with robotics and AI.

A recent report – A future that works: automation, employment, and productivity – actually does a comprehensive non-scare-mongering job analyzing AI, robotics, and future automation. The authors make some rare sober-minded predictions on the timeframe for automation and the degree to which the doomsday (or optimistic) scenarios that dominate media coverage today will come to pass.

They take neither a techno-optimist nor pessimist perspective. Instead, they predict massive automation but slowly over the next 30 to 50 years – and they back that up with in-depth analysis of 2,000 work activities across 800 occupations. It’s really terrific work.

The bottom line is that while the report does predict that every occupation has the potential for at least partial automation, total automation will come much more slowly and initially to less than 5% of occupations.

This kind of approach is what I like to call Slow Robot.

And Slow Robot is the theme of the General Session of the upcoming Collaborative Gain Council meetings in Chicago.

In about 10 days, I’ll be convening the 350 senior leaders of the Collaborative Gain Councils for two days of private meetings. Most of the two days will be spent in small council meetings (leaders meeting leaders in carefully curated groups of 15 or so). But for two hours I host a general session with the authors of this good report.

To prepare for the general session, I’d like your help.

What do you think about robots, UBI, and the pace of automation?

If you are a Council member – tell me what questions/comments you have for me and the authors of the above report. I’d like to call on you at the general session.

If you are *not* a Council member – tell me your questions and comments anyway. I’d love to bring those up on your behalf in Chicago.

Reply and tell me what you are thinking.

Look forward to hearing from you.



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About the Author

Phyl Terry

Phyl Terry, Founder and CEO of Collaborative Gain, Inc., launched the company’s flagship leadership program – The Councils – in 2002 with a fellow group of Internet pioneers from Amazon, Google, and others. Thousands of leaders from the Internet world have come together in the last 15 years to learn the art of asking for help and to support each other to build better, more customer-centric products, services, and companies.

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