For some, The Fourth Revolution conjures up a dystopic vision of the world of work where robots take over the world of work, resulting in human redundancy on a global scale. A recent PWC report says by the mid-2030s, up to 30% of jobs could be automated. Driverless cars and biometric payments are just a few ways the job market for low skilled labour will be disrupted since, theoretically anyway, there won’t be a need for taxi drivers or cashiers. But in the broader scheme of things, automation doesn’t always have to mean mass unemployment. There is another way, and it’s seeing success in advanced robotics and in new technology.
“Our robots are doing something truly good, otherwise I wouldn’t have made them.”
Collaborative technology, where machines and humans co-create in manufacturing product and providing services, is a compelling theme that came out of the discourse at the European Business Forum. Esban Østergaard, CEO of Universal Robots is adamant that the purpose of collaborative technology is to bring the human touch back to the center of manufacturing products.
“Our robots are doing something truly good, otherwise I wouldn’t have made them.” says Østergaard “If you look at factories you see people working like robots and that’s not the right way to use people. Replacing people with robots is [also] not the right way, because you’re throwing away a lot of value that is held in the human knowledge of manufacturing a product. You want people for their craftsmanship, their expertise.”
Universal Robots makes collaborative robots, or “co-bots”, which are designed to work alongside their human counterparts on the production line. Where the first wave of automation saw the elimination of manual labour, the vision for co-bots is to enhance the efficiency of manual labour. Co-bots require humans to program them and this opens up opportunity for the development of higher skill sets on shop floor.
“Historically, humanity has always used technology to do more with our time and energy and it has not created mass unemployment — ever.”
Østergaard insists that by skilling up workers to be programmers and giving over the repetitive physical work to co-bots our factories will become more humane. Although shifting landscape of the job market is a given, the threat of mass unemployment due to efficiencies created by technology is, on the whole, a false narrative construct. “Historically, humanity has always used technology to do more with our time and energy and it has not created mass unemployment — ever.” says Østergaard.
“Giving people robots to use as a tool is more of the right approach. There are certain elements of the manufacturing process that can’t be replaced by robots and we shouldn’t try to do this”.
When tech is useful to humans
It is in human nature to invent tools that make our day-to-day lives easier. From the wheel to the washing machine, improved technology is simply a tool to a more efficient experience. This is evident at Google, whose purpose is to use computing technology to organise global information and to make it accessible and useful for everyone.
Matt Brittin, President, EMEA Business & Operations at Google “There’s a collaboration between people and technology that helps to make things more useful all the time,”
Google puts the user first by humanising search intent, like personalised YouTube suggestions and the hands-free Google Assistant for instance. So how does such a massive company ensure this purpose is understood and lived day-to-day with tens and thousands of employees worldwide?
“Google try to be open and accountable. We try to have that culture internally and I think that helps to breed collaboration”
Brittin says it’s about Google’s ethos influenced by the open web when they were still small company and having this philosophy permeate what is today, a much larger organisation. “The way we run the company is still amazingly open. The founders run a weekly session that’s open to anybody at Google where they stand up and talk about what’s going on at the company and anybody in the company can ask questions,”
“I think that’s really important because it means that, you not only get to know what’s going on but you see the behaviours and values of the leadership team. And I think again, internally all of us as leaders at Google try to be open and accountable. We try to have that culture internally and I think that helps to breed collaboration,” he says.
The human touch is still very much at the core of companies like Universal Robots and Google that find their purpose unfold in the collaboration between human and machines. When a small company grows and evolves into a multi-national entity, it’s imperative that the culture that builds that growth stays as true as it can to their purpose by engaging all of its employees.
Finally for Britten openness and engagement is not only a way to break down silos, but it can also present the opportunity for innovation “You and I might be working on completely different things,” explains Britten “but that piece of technology you’ve got and that problem I’m trying to solve with this user, when they work together they could do something neither of us thought of before”.