Productivity horror story: the rise of the machines

It’s Halloween, so that means time to tell scary stories. (cut the lights and cue the spooky music). A few days ago, we wrote about productivity zombies, but let’s be honest, those guys are probably just going to shuffle around and drool a lot. They’re not all that scary.

Robots, however… those dudes can be downright terrifying.

They don’t sleep. They don’t take breaks, not even to check Facebook. They just keep churning away, an incessant model of clinical efficiency. Our saving grace is that robots tend to not be all that smart. Chances are, there isn’t a robot today that can do what you do for a living. Most knowledge worker jobs require a pretty large degree of creativity. You have to be able to adapt, think on your feet, and respond to changes too subtle for a robot to deal with.

So that means we’re safe from robo-pacolypse, right? Not so fast… (cue more scary music) Computers (read in a scary voice: Robot Brains!) are getting smarter at an exponential rate. It won’t be long before many of the activities we consider impossible for our mechanical creations become routine for them. Here are few examples to think about. It may be that the scariest story isn’t the one where you’re getting chased down a dark alley by some hellbent-on-evil machine, but instead you show up for work on a monday morning and a robot is sitting at your desk, humming away at your job.

In a Race Between a Self-Driving Car and a Pro Race-Car Driver, Who Wins?

If you’re getting chased by a robot, at least you can jump in your car and get away from it, right? For now, that’s true, but only if you’re an elite race car driver with years of experience. Let’s be honest. You’re not. And there are robot cars in existence today that can literally drive circles around you. Keep in mind that the vast majority of auto accidents are caused by human error, so the increasing automotive dominance of computers may not actually be such a bad thing. Or, perhaps that’s exactly what the robots want you to think?

How Technology Is Replacing Workers

“Approximately 2.5 million service robots were sold in 2011 for personal and domestic use.” From assembly line workers, to farmers, to grocery store tellers, robots are becoming viable alternatives to human labor. Consider that in 1850, agriculture employed about 60% of the working population. Today, it’s less than 3%, yet the largest industry in the United States is the food industry, accounting for more than 20% of the US Gross National Product. When you can build one machine that can do the work of  five people, the economics stop looking so good for humanity.

Man or machine – can robots really write novels?

Okay, okay, manual labor sort of makes sense. You can build a machine to do repetitive tasks, and not have to worry about the problems that come with frail human bodies (not strong enough, not fast enough, pesky bathroom breaks). But surely it’s a different story for knowledge workers? Well, not if you’re a chess player, which last I checked is usually something you have to be pretty smart to be good at. There is a piece of software that can piece together entire books from a special algorithm and a bunch of internet searches. It’s creator has over 100,000 titles listed on Amazon. even has a robot blogger that posts a number of articles each week.

So enjoy humanity’s dominance of it’s mechanical creations while it lasts. One day, sooner than you might think, the tables will turn.

(cue corny horror movie outro music)

Happy Halloween, everybody!

p.s. I got most, if not all, of the material for this post from the Tweets of Andrew McAfee, a research scientist at the Center for Digital Business in the MIT Sloan School of Management. He has some really insightful and entertaining views on the future of technology as it relates to work. I recommend following him. To get a less Halloweeny, and far more optimistic view of this topic, check out his TED talk.