Some companies don’t just have a robot, they have whole teams of robots they manage. For any of us who have read even a little bit of sci-fi or watched Star Wars, there is a very interesting lesson on the future of work, life balance. Or as the article title phrased it, robot to people balance. The extremely outsized returns on a revenue per headcount of companies like Facebook, Google, Amazon, etc are simply staggering by comparison to companies that rely on people for the most part, and have very few truly robotic, semi autonomous teams that run the business operations. As we get better at automating tasks to increase our net productivity, there are a few interesting by products of this change:
- We lose jobs that previously unskilled or semi skilled labor could perform (factory work, warehouse work, etc)
- We lose jobs that previously required skilled labor (librarians, researchers, academics)
- We lose jobs that require human level creativity (fuzzy state machine algorithms, etc)
- We are forced to adapt, becoming more innovative so that new arenas of job growth are defined
When you start to consider that robot teams have not only disrupted a series of semi skilled or unskilled labor categories, robots have also started to replace some of the skilled and creative professional jobs that most people would believe “safe” even during the eventual turn towards automation and network effects. The neat thing, however, for those firms that embrace this paradigm shift, these are the ones who create the most network effects for themselves. Each of their strategies should be aimed at maximizing the ripple effect, the automation, the disruptive category redefinition that can be generated by best in class companies. In the not to distant future, it might be interesting to measure companies on not only their efficacy in terms of shareholder value, but their efficacy in terms of people value. Japan does this to a degree, with worker salaries pegged at maximum 80% of the value of the top person in the company. While this is great, the newer, more progressive metric would be the ratio of people output to robot output in the company.
What do you think a company’s obligation should be to create work and distribute wealth?
Personally, I think that if a company grows successful enough in a given category, through automation, it makes absolute sense to force them to hire on or do succession planning. At a certain scale, hiring people becomes a necessary functioning part of stable world class businesses. Despite my firm belief in automation, I also believe businesses have an obligation to have a human component, and create jobs in an intelligent way, leveraging progressive values and the right mix of human and robot labor. What is the right mix? I think it’s something we are all in the process of discovering.