Challenge society’s robotic programming to shift your perspective, find meaning and change your outcomes in the highly engaged workplace of the future

There could hardly be any doubt about it. The robots are evolving far faster than we are.

This reality makes us an endangered species. Everywhere in the world, it seems, we want to save any endangered species – from ants to elephants. It’s not clear how those saviors will get working humans on that list. But those are the humans who are rapidly becoming irrelevant to the most “advanced” civilizations on earth. In society and economy, those who do the dirty work are fast becoming extinct. Because they are considered interchangeable, they are seen as expendable as people.

Recently, there was an article entitled “Will a Robot Be Your Next Boss?”
That’s catchy, but naïve. Maybe not academically naïve, since those folks long ago have sentenced themselves to being irrelevant, but perhaps more pragmatically naïve. The next category to be displaced by robots, for the purpose of “removing all errors in judgment while producing better outcomes,” will not be your boss, but more likely the engineers who design and build robots. They do, after all, make many judgments in order to create a robot that does menial tasks. Robots are the main workers in a Japanese hotel, even today. Robots have very little sense of how to run a business. That’s primarily because their creators have very little sense of how to create and run a business.

Robots have to be programmed. What we know is that robots cannot be any more intelligent than the human who programmed them. The high-tech people who write code are actually doing a very menial task – albeit a highly creative one. They don’t make better lives than the run of the mill make for themselves. So the logic here says that they will be displaced by the robots they design. If you remember “Hal,” it was Hal the computer who took charge of the spaceship in the film 2001.

If that doesn’t make you a bit skeptical of having a robot for a boss, this will. Apparently unknown to the author of the article, it is most likely the “boss” who would have to sign the document that permits him or her to be displaced by a robot. And for an expenditure of that size, the check would require his signature. It may have dawned on you at some point that humans are not necessarily the smartest critters on earth. But they know what their vested interests are, and will not delegate those even in the name of “progress.” So far, bosses have both created and destroyed more jobs than robots have, or will. It takes a lot of ego to be the boss. Robots, according to Spock, don’t know how to compute that.

It is well to “inspire” people to be more valuable, which the author tries to
do (commendable), so they are less vulnerable to the onslaught of technological progress. But if people are willing to be displaced by an electro-mechanical gadget, maybe extinction is the kindest cut. Some American workers prefer the problem of their looming obsolescence to any solution that would require them to learn and become more competent. So be it. There seem to be fewer and fewer Americans who want to start at the bottom – the grunt work. So it is done by immigrants, both legal and illegal. Or by robots. You can program a robot to pick an apple from the tree. But you cannot program a robot to figure out when one is ripe. Robots will figure out how to make robots and thus make their makers obsolete long before they are capable of nurturing the conception and growth of a head of cabbage.

The virtuoso performers who comprise the award-winning musical ensemble known as the Orpheus chamber orchestra have never had a conductor at a public performance. There are no robots in the orchestra – and more than likely never may be. Would you pay a hundred bucks to go hear a robot play a piano solo with no errors? And what would be a “better outcome” here? The audience comes for a very complex human experience, not for the technology. Picture this: a concert hall filled with robots waiting for (?) a solo piano performance by a robot. What’s missing?

People have always looked for a way of getting done the things they didn’t want to do. Many civilizations – even the Greeks – had slaves for this purpose. From the best perspective, robots are our modern slaves. They may or may not arise from oppression. They may not have the “heart” for it. So I don’t think we have to worry about whether or not a robot will be anyone’s next boss. Bosses are occasionally stupid. It is entertaining but not very cost effective to create a boss who is stupid. We have an oversupply of them. If the only reason a boss might become better in his or her role is to avoid being replaced by a robot, then it becomes more probable that they will be. Robots do not live in a money economy. We do. Obviously robots do not understand how money rules the world – even theirs. They don’t even have a pocket to put their money in. Nor do they have the driverless cars that they might someday own. What would a robot’s lover look like? What would a robot’s offspring look like? How would they resist their parents’ authority? If a robot were fired for cause, would it become despondent, standing in the unemployment lines? Could they invent such things? If you could have your somewhat unsatisfactory life lived by a robot in place of you, would you do it?

On the other hand (for people, robots wouldn’t understand this): IF you have a “job,” and IF your “job” is largely repetitive and you don’t have to be fully engaged mentally to carry it out, and IF your “job” is not as meaningful to you as are your leisure-time activities, and IF you believe your “job” is boring…then your “job” is a candidate for being taken over and carried out more reliably by a robot.

Those who become robot-like in performing their work (or their play) are replaceable by robots. This is true for people at any level – including bosses. ‘Bots will achieve only what they have been programmed to achieve. If people achieve only what they have been “programmed” to achieve, they can be replaced by a robot. When your love life has become so routinized that you can carry it out without thinking about it, you could be displaced by a more proficient robot.

Some persons have already been displaced, judging from the antics of the “experts” who already are the robots’ minions. If those who design and create robots don’t think hard about the consequences of what they are doing (which neither bosses nor technologists do well), then it is perhaps inevitable that robotics will become their boss.

Lee Thayer, Ph.D., president and CEO of The Thayer Institute, www.thethayerinstitute.org, is a pioneer and influential innovator in the design and development of high-performance executive and organizational leadership strategies.
in the design and development of high-performance organizations and the leadership required to make that happen.

A former Harvard University business professor and Fortune 500 consultant, he keynotes the second annual Thayer Institute Leadership Conference, Asheville, Aug. 27-28, where leaders acquire the thinking tools needed to change their world for the better.

Where leaders acquire the thinking tools needed.

By: Lee Thayer, Ph.D.
The Thayer Institute