I, Robot … One more time

PB-logoHere is my June Management Matters column in Prairie Business Magazine

Imagine if you could replace your workforce with an army of robots. Be honest, whether you are a Baby Boomer who grew up watching the Jetsons or a Generation X who played with Transformers, robots have always been an intriguing idea. Since Isaac Asimov’s short stories appeared in 1950, generations of business leaders have been fantasizing of the day when robots would replace humans in the workplace. Almost like clockwork, every few years, new reports suggest the “robots are coming.”

Once again we find a number of pundits making this prediction. The catalyst of the latest craze may have been Amazon’s murmuration on the delivery of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Next came the claim that savvy business leaders could cut expenditures by using robots at a fraction of the cost of humans … pennies on the dollar, the robot enthusiasts prophesied to their followers.

As exciting as this proposition may sound, real “savvy” business leaders understand the true cost of replacing humans with machines. It sounds a little like the promise of lower prices when we offshored manufacturing to China. How much are we willing to pay for lower prices? Perhaps the time has come for us to consider investing in manufacturing jobs for people — those people who live, work and contribute to our communities — rather than chasing the dream of eliminating all humans from our operations. Maybe the time is right to modify Asimov’s fourth or so-called zeroth law of robotics to: A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm (especially by taking high-paying blue-collar American jobs). PB