Last night I gave a talk at the launch of a new piece of social media management software called ‘Sociomole’ [2020 note: now defunct]. In it I tried to put some context around the growing array of semi-autonomous tools that are increasingly available to us at home and at work. My point was that while concerns around technological unemployment, autonomous weapons and AI are valid, we should also be excited about the possibilities of a new range of tools. Tools that might be the beginning of an ‘age of robots’.
Here’s the full script:
“Does everyone here know where the word ‘robot’ comes from?
It’s from the Czech, robota, meaning ‘serf’ or ‘slave’. The term was coined nearly a hundred years ago by a playwrite, Karel Capek. In his play, Rossum’s Universal Robots, the machines eventually rise up, overthrow and exterminate the human race.
This cycle of creation, uprising, destruction has set the tone for much of the narrative around robots, both fictional and factual ever since.
For every bumbling C3PO and lovable R2D2 there’s murderous Hal9000, Skynet or Roy Batty.
From Fiction to Fact
Thirty or forty years ago when those genre-defining films, Star Wars, 2001, Terminator and Blade Runner, were made, robots were very much science fiction. Even the remote control R2D2 couldn’t be made to drive in a straight line.
But today robots are a much more realistic proposition, in both hardware and software form. And so the debate about them has moved from cinema screen to newspaper headlines.
In the recent past we have seen warnings from academics, the UN and human rights campaigners against the development of killer robots.
Luminaries such as Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates pointing to the threat that artificial intelligence presents.
And serious research organisations such as Boston Consulting group and the Oxford Martin School of Management suggesting that 25–35% of all jobs could be automated in the next ten to twenty years.
In the words of another robot, Marvin the Paranoid Android from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “It’s all rather depressing really.”
And I think that’s a shame. Because while all of these concerns are valid, they conceal the potential joy in what we are on the verge of achieving.
We Are Defined by Our Tools
One of the defining characteristics of the human being, what sets human beings apart from other species, is the ability to create and use tools. To extend our frail physicality and limited mental capacity beyond the bounds that evolution has defined.
Throughout history we have been augmenting ourselves, both physically and mentally. We wanted to communicate more clearly, so we created language. We wanted to calculate more accurately, so we created the abacus. We wanted to travel fast so we built cars and trains. We wanted to fly so we built planes.
These innovations are so important to us that we classify whole ages of history by the underlying technology. The stone age. The bronze age. The steam age.
And now, the silicon age.
You Are All Bionic
In the past few years we have used our mastery of the silicon chip to develop an incredible array of mental augmentations. So popular are they that I will happily say that everyone in this room is a cyborg.
You are all bionic.
Don’t believe me? Who looked up a number today on their phone? Who searched Google for a piece of information? Who used satellite navigation to find their way here?
The technology may not be embedded in our heads but the interface is slick enough that it doesn’t matter. Technology augments us all the time. Personally I have outsourced large parts of my memory to my calendar and my phone book. Google Maps is my sense of direction.
This isn’t weakness. It is strength. Building tools to augment our capabilities is what humans do.
There is an obvious next step in the evolution of our digital prosthetics.
Have you ever been so busy you wished you could clone yourself? Well now you can.
From automating the simplest of office tasks to training a robot like sociomole to be you in your absence, you can now create limited digital clones of yourself to multiply your capabilities.
And here’s where the joy turns into commercial power. Because the most successful companies in the world are incredibly good at empowering small numbers of people to be incredibly effective.
When Facebook bought Whatsapp in 2014 it paid $22bn. For a team of 55 people. If anyone thinks that’s insane, WhatsApp now has nearly a billion active users around the world — twice what it had when Facebook bought it a year ago — and it remains on an incredible growth track.
The venture capitalist Tomas Tonguz did some analysis a while back looking at the turnover of silicon valley companies broken down per employee. He found that the average was $100–200,000 per head. While Google turned over $1m per head and Apple twice that.
Part of this is because of their incredible business models but part of it is because these companies empower their employees to do more with the right tools at their finger tips.
And increasingly these tools have a level of autonomy.
These are early days for our little digital elves. Their functions are limited today and they still need close supervision. But already they are having a huge impact for those people and companies adopting them.
My advice is to look at what’s out there. See what it could do for you today. Get in on the ground floor and be the people and the organisations using and refining the tools. Getting value.
Be aware of the threats. But don’t be put off by them. We should take joy in our new found powers, as well as being conscious of the risks.