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The Revenge Of The Robots

By Art van Bodegraven | 04/14/2017 | 1:03 PM

They're on the march, and we can't stop them. Whatever they are. I confess to terminal ignorance regarding what constitutes automotion and what qualifies as robotics. Somehow, AS/RS, sortation stations, and infinite varieties of conveyor seem to be (mere) automation.

But, what are robots? Sometimes remotely anthromorphic devices that perform essentially human tasks, only with deadly accuracy and a high degreee of reliable repeatability, e.g., spot welders. I'm not equipped to project the deeper meaning behind AI-powered humanoids, capable of learning, communicating, and providing comfort to human colleagues and companions. (By comfort, I do not mean the services provided for Japanese soldiers in the 1940s.)

So, in my skewed worldview, little Kiva-like transporters might be robots, and cable-gripping trolley cars might be automation.

What I am confident about is that the proliferation of both automation and robotics will not make life richer, and economic status advanced for ordinary workers. The related Utopian hopes often expressed are so much hype and wishful thinking. But, the future, unless one is a gifted programmer or craftsperson, is bleak.  Fewer good jobs, more unemployment, thundering underemployment, and low wage menial employment where automated kiosks and robotic processors have not passed the ROI test.

While all of society is likely to undergo wrenching changes and rotting deterioration, what are the near-term candidates for early economic genocide?  Opinions vary, and can border on the somewhat demented end of the scale.

One observer lists these as imminent casualties:

  • Compliance—any function designed to ensure that rules are being followee and that all coloring take place betrween the lines.  Lawyers, acountants, and, if we are to have one little ray of sunshine, maybe IRS agents.
  • Cashiers—else why mess around with semi-intelligent kiosks.
  • Supply chain functions, including portions of procurement and replenishment, inventory management, forecasting, planning, packing and labeling, order selection, replenishment. All that said, I don't see the SCM teams disappearing into the morning mists—ever.
  • Scheduling and travel management.
  • Taxi service and ride-sharing—actually any function that can be Uber-ized.
  • Software testing.

Another goes after many of the same targets, but with specifics, including analysis, intelligence extraction from Big Data, testing interpretation—and wraps up with doctors. I'll reserve judgment on the medical side; my confidence will always have a bias for humans in all aspects, and I am not ready to risk all on a program malfunction, faulty logic, or cyber-mischief.

Good news?  Palmer cites the jobs to be taken over by robots last, including: mental health professionals, politicians, professional athletes, judges, and pre-K/elementary teachers. Not that these jobs won't eventually be lost; they'll just take longer got the robots to figure out. Not an encouraging sign for the future; not a pretty picture.

Whatever the precise future holds, the changes the planet must learn to live with, and leverage, will be cosmic, and feed into a brave new world of constant change—and uncertainty.

Meanwhile, the robots will sleep well at night.




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About Art van Bodegraven

Art van Bodegraven

Art van Bodegraven (1939 - 2017) was Managing Principal of the van Bodegraven Associates consultancy and Founding Principal of Discovery Executive Services, which develops and delivers supply chain educational programs. He was formerly Chair of the Supply Chain Group AG, Partner at The Progress Group LLC, Development Executive at CSCMP, Practice Leader with S4 Consulting, and a Managing Director in Coopers & Lybrand's consulting practice. Concentrating in supply chain management and logistics for over 20 years in his 50+ year business career, he has led ground-breaking strategic, operational, and educational projects for leading US and global clients. Art was principal co-author of DC Velocity's Basic Training monthly column for a decade, and was the principal co-author, with Ken Ackerman, of Fundamentals of Supply Chain Management, the definitive primer in the field. His popular blog, The Art of Art, has been a staple of DC Velocity's web site since its inception.


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