On Monday as I was going through the first edit of my book on automation, I heard of the whopper Microsoft bid for LinkedIn. I then read CEO Jeff Weiner’s letter to employees announcing it.
Josh Bernoff calls the letter creepy. My reaction was more specific to the para below. I asked why is a CEO whose company thrives on recruitment of human employees painting such a dystopian future about jobs? Does LinkedIn think it can provide a safe harbor from all the wreckage it believes is headed our way?
Remember that dystopian view of the future in which technology displaces millions of people from their jobs? It’s happening. In the last three weeks alone, Foxconn announced it will replace 60,000 factory workers with robots, a former CEO of McDonald’s said given rising wages, the same would happen throughout their franchises, Walmart announced plans to start testing drones in its warehouses, and Elon Musk predicted fully autonomous car technology would arrive within two years.
I wanted to send Jeff a copy of the early edit version of my book. My book is pro-automation – in fact it has countless examples of robotic surgeries, drones for inspections at elevations, machine learning in various settings, driverless farming vehicles and on and on. My book also points out automation is gradual – takes years and decades, and works best alongside humans, making them safer, speedier, smarter.
Jeff’s examples just repeat news story headlines. I wonder if he has analyzed any of those scenarios in any detail.
Take the Elon Musk quote. Yes, Musk has said you should be able to summon your car from across the country. Driverless car technology is evolving nicely. It has been for decades. The 1958 Chrysler Imperial first introduced cruise control to the masses. In 1992 Mitsubishi introduced the LIDAR based distance detection system, a building block of many of today's driverless prototypes. In 1999, Mercedes introduced Distronics assistive cruise control to the world. The DARPA funded Grand Challenges for driverless cars were first held in 2004.
Road infrastructure, on the other hand, has not kept pace. In fact, in response to a Consumer Reports test, Tesla has made changes to its AutoPilot feature to restrict its use on residential roads and roads without a center divider. Lane markings are widely inconsistent across our roads. Delphi, an auto parts manufacturer, took its driverless vehicle on a cross-country trip in 2015. It found that pavement markings are quite different across states in spite of uniform standards. Quite a bit of investment will need to be made in our signals, construction zones and roadside fiber to communicate with driverless cars – this when cities and counties will face a dip in speeding fine revenues when machines will be much more compliant with speed limits.
Our driving laws also need to evolve considerably. In Europe, truck platooning is likely to be an early (as in starting in 2020) use case for autonomous vehicles. Drivers will still be needed—by law they’ll have to keep their hands on the wheel. Platooning will lead to many benefits, but job losses? Not any time soon.
I could go on about driverless vehicles, but let’s next look at the Foxconn point. Foxconn is a remarkably well run company. It has delivered billions of Apple and other devices at high-quality and under unbelievable time constraints. It is always looking for efficiencies and has been trying out its Foxbots for years to supplement over million employees around the world.
Robots can do certain tasks extremely well, especially tasks which are repetitive and unpleasant to humans. But there are countless tasks where humans are still much better. Don’t believe all the hype that robots can do anything.
Japan is the leading maker and consumer of robots, accounting for half of the world's production. It has the world's largest concentration of robot engineers. Yet, these world leading experts have tried for five years following the Tohoku earthquake to use robots to clean the radiation at the Fukushima nuclear plant. So far, all the robots sent into the reactors have failed to return.
Let’s look at the McDonald’s point. McDonald’s and its franchisees are always looking for efficiencies in the kitchen, in the drive through, and other processes. Yes, because of the minimum wage hike, there is talk of kiosks to replace human cashiers. It’s already common in Europe. Will it take off in the US? Not a given. Don’t forget the consumer.
I personally use self-service technology everywhere. My research shows, however, shows many consumers are ambivalent about self-service. They have seen banks try to make money off ATMs, airlines off boarding pass kiosks, car rental companies off toll tags. Many want a discount for self service, not have corporations just use it to pad their profits. Still others are resentful of checkout machines which capture a video of their transaction. It is meant to reduce fraud but consumers worry that their privacy is also being compromised.
Here’s a common reaction from a consumer forum.”Part of the cost of an item is to pay for the service of checkout. I'm not going to waste my time and effort, and take someones job in the process, by checking myself out. If self checkout gave you a 5% discount on the total bill, I'd consider it, but otherwise, I'd rather not take someones job."
The US Postal Service has been puzzled at the relatively low usage of its kiosks even after a decade of availability.Me, I would not wait in line for a postal employee, and prefer using the kiosk, but many consumers prefer not to. I can bet you McDonald’s and other food chains will have to factor this consumer sentiment as they consider kiosks.
Finally about Walmart. Amazon distribution centers have had Kiva robots zip around for years now. Guess what, they still have hundreds of employees in these centers.
Unfortunately, Jeff’s comments are like those being broadcast by way too many academics, analysts and politicians. They are projecting computing curves to job curves. Just because computing power is growing exponentially does not mean a direct, immediate impact on job curves.
In their positions, they should be a lot more careful about what they say. Since so many of them are so confident we are moving into a jobless future, the mood of the common person on the street is pretty gloomy.
I am sorry. I refuse to support their pessimism. My book, which should be out in a few weeks will combat that pessimism in much more detail and show countless examples of well done automation – that which makes humans safer, smarter, speedier.