Leadership

“Silicon Collar” – a realistic view of automation eliminating jobs

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Editor’s note: The buzz about robots and automation eliminating humans’ jobs is like a squeaking hinge, getting louder and causing more friction almost daily. Released this month, “Silicon Collar,” Vinnie Mirchandani’s fourth book about technology and innovation, is a must-read for employers making decisions about automation as well as for employees who fear their job will be eliminated by technology. Whatever your opinion is about technology and jobs, I believe reading this book will enhance or change your opinion. 

I’ve read Vinnie’s three earlier books about technology and innovation, so I felt sure there would be important insights in this new one. And since much of the kind of work I do is now at risk of going to robots, I read “Silicon Collar” seeking a glimmer of hope. What I found was much more than that. I spoke with author Vinnie Mirchandani, who is also president of Deal Architect Inc., about his book. 

Did you have this book in mind when you wrote your other three books? 

Vinnie MirchandaniVinnie Mirchandani: Writing the two volumes about “SAP Nation” was such a depressing experience because I saw that people are wasting so much money. So I decided to go back to writing about innovation. I started “Silicon Collar” with a view of just writing what is now the first half of the book – people describing positively how technology has been making work better, smarter, speedier, safer, etc. That was my original intention for the book. 

But one would have to be blind and deaf to not read or hear about the pessimism around technology and jobs, and I just couldn’t ignore that. So I turned historian and looked at the last 100 years to see how automation in fact, gets rolled out. 

The more I studied automation in different sectors, I saw that automation takes a long time to really get absorbed into society. We’re seeing too much panic right now about how robotics or artificial intelligence technology has evolved so much. Actually, when you look back over the past 100 years, you realize that automation continues to evolve and we’re not there yet by a long shot. I found that the automation in most cases started 60-80 years ago, is still evolving, and it actually increased jobs in many sectors. 

Yes, I recently read an article about the invention of the sewing machine and the fact that it didn’t eliminate jobs but, rather, created an entire new fashion industry with thousands of jobs. I was really interested in the many examples you present in your book – lawnmowers for instance, and UPC codes. 

Silicon Collar book coverVinnie Mirchandani: Right. Without lawnmowers, patented in 1830, we would not have had today’s sports or housing industries, which provide thousands of jobs. And the guy who patented UPC codes in 1952 actually came up with the idea in 1948. He couldn’t get his employer, IBM, interested in commercializing it, so it took another 10 years to sell the patent and then still another 10 years to commercialize the technology. And when it got commercialized, it didn’t kill grocery jobs. Instead, it made inventory control easier and allowed most consumer goods companies to come up with different SKUs of their products, such as a hundred different cereals or soups. So it actually increased grocery sales and jobs. 

Besides this aspect of your book explaining that automation is an evolution, not a revolution, I was interested that you brought out how often automation efforts fail for a while. For example, you mentioned the robots going in to clean up the Fukushima nuclear plant. I’ve read articles about that but haven’t seen anything until your book that says the robots never came out. Do you think the media is part of the problem causing the hype or buzz about job loss in that it’s not covering some of the realistic aspects of automation? 

Vinnie Mirchandani: Technologists understandably get all excited and hype up what’s happening today. But the media likes stories that are short and pithy and get your attention. It’s a lot easier to take the Oxford University doomsday study and say 47 percent of U.S. jobs are going to get computerized than it is to be responsible and put a timeline on it – it may take 30 years, 50 years, or five years, for example. 

More than the media, I blame the academics and the analysts for being glib about the reality. For instance, the two researchers who did the Oxford study were asked if automation wouldn’t also create new jobs, as somebody will have to make the robots, code the machine learning, etc. They responded that they didn’t look at the positives; they only looked at the potential job losses from the automation. I think that issuing something that is only pessimistic, or without a timeline, is frankly a bit irresponsible given the stature of their school. 

People need to understand that societies absorb automation at a very different pace than how machines evolve. The evolution and the adoption curves are very different. 

You pointed out in your book that automation is increasingly about pleasing customers. I think a lot of what people think and hear is that automation is about reducing costs and eliminating human errors. We hear very little about how it’s pleasing customers, making work safer and better. And you took it further and said if companies please customers and pass efficiency and productivity savings on to customers, they’ll spend more, which is a catalyst for creating more jobs. I don’t think that’s covered very much in the news, so I think again that the media is a big part of the problem. 

Vinnie Mirchandani: I gave several examples in “Silicon Collar.” The “Zootopia” movie, for instance, has 64 different animal species. Each has multiple characters (mama, grandpa, etc.); and for each character, they created hair to show how wind drives and light reflects off each strand. The giraffe had nine million individual hairs. There is no way a human animator could have done that without a machine. The credits at the end of the movie shows there were 500 animators and sound technicians, and so on. Computer-generated imagery didn’t kill those jobs. It just made the product so much more fantastic. 

The UPS delivery record is remarkable. What’s even more impressive is thanks to technology, their drivers have an accident on average only every million miles. Think about that. We should be delighted at that kind of record. 

It caught my attention in your Preface that you say the book is about reshaping jobs, not eliminating jobs. I think that is an important focus that people need to adopt. 

Vinnie Mirchandani: If a job is one or two simple tasks, it’s fairly easy to automate those. The job is now gone for the garbage collector who used to hang at the back of the truck and pick up the garbage bags and throw them in the back of the truck. The robotic arm took over that job. That was a simple job with only two tasks; and was a dull, dirty and dangerous job. Society as a whole doesn’t mind eliminating that kind of job. Frankly, the county where I live was having a hard time hiring people for those jobs. 

Another example is someone on an assembly line whose job is to look for burnt chips. Simple jobs, or what I call amoeba jobs (single cell, single or two-task jobs) are usually the most susceptible to automation. 

But how many of us have that simplistic of a job? We do multiple things on a daily basis. Individually, a couple of tasks could be automated, but not the entire job. But I’m also not overly optimistic and Pollyanna about jobs going away. Yes, it’s happening to the “3D” – dull, dirty, dangerous tasks. But it behooves a society to keep reducing those so we can all move to more creative work. The jobs that are not so simple are not being eliminated by automation – they’re being transformed. 

A lot of people realize they need to retrain and get new skills, but they don’t know where to start, which direction to go for a different kind of job. 

Vinnie Mirchandani: Most people just look within their profession. Why do you have to stick to a certain profession your entire life? When I studied the job economy, I ended up feeling so good about this economy because there are 800 different occupations that the Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks. I found so many examples of people who have changed careers every three to four years. I don’t think in any generation before ours that we’ve had this much opportunity to change hats. 

I know an ex-banker who kept trying to get another banking job, and he got more and more frustrated. He finally bought a franchise for a Kona Ice Truck and loves it. He now has happy kids and parents as customers, not angry bank customers. I’ve talked to people who do swimming pool maintenance. Several are college graduates but found they don’t like to sit in an office; they like to be outdoors. There are so many opportunities to rethink careers. I would say just start looking at some other options. 

I personally think more and more individuals need to become entrepreneurs, small business people, and franchise owners or become platform participants (via Apple, Amazon, Uber and so many others) So keep broadening your horizons every few years.  

What do you hope is the big takeaway for readers of your book, both business leaders looking at automation as well as employees that fear job loss?  

Vinnie Mirchandani: That machines definitely make us better workers, safer workers, smarter workers. But I want businesses to not just glibly think of automation as replacing labor. It’s a symbiotic relationship. A movie theatre that eliminates jobs by implementing kiosks and mobile apps needs to make sure the technology works. At my local theatre, for instance, at least two of the four kiosks are always broken. Always. And the mobile app hasn’t worked for the past month. Don’t just throw technology out there and not have the human element. I want businesses to understand they can’t just have automation but must also have humans to ensure a good customer experience. 

There’s no question we have problems in our US jobs economy – too much student debt, millions of unfilled vacancies, etc. But I want workers reading this book to move away from the pessimism hanging over them that machines are going to kill their job and there’s no other future. I want them to not be too worried in the short term and begin looking at other opportunities – and there are plenty of them. The older the reader, the deeper the pessimism. I think 10 percent of the workforce has given up and is very pessimistic. But most people are still bubbly and want to evolve and want to look at newer opportunities. 

I liked your last chapter on guidelines for thriving in the new jobs economy. 

Vinnie Mirchandani: There are a lot of great examples of “what’s is in it for me.” I think we have a remarkable jobs economy. It is so diverse, and there are so many opportunities for us to switch jobs every four or five years and switch careers if we need to. 

The big “aha” from my book research is, yes, we may not have lifetime employment, plates for 25 years of service, or pensions that our parents enjoyed (or in many cases suffered through). However, we have ended up with many other positive things in return: more choice in occupations, more second and later acts and all kinds of technology that is making work safer, smarter and speedier. And we are still to see new jobs emerge as we tackle our grand challenges in energy, deep space, healthcare and many new frontiers. 

I think we should really be proud of this labor economy and keep building on it. 

Vinnie Mirchandani is president of Deal Architect Inc., a technology advisory firm that helps clients take advantage of disruptive trends before they go mainstream. He generally writes books on technology-enabled innovation. The two SAP books are more investigative but continue his research and case-study-heavy writing style. He is a former Gartner analyst and writes two technology blogs, Deal Architect and New Florence. New Renaissance. Email him at vm@dealarchitect.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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