Biomimetic file 205: Rise of the Machines

Why business automation is both an opportunity and a risk

Male robot thinking about something.

*Cybernetics is a trans-disciplinary approach for exploring regulatory systems—their structures, constraints, and possibilities. Norbert Wiener defined cybernetics in 1948 as “the scientific study of control and communication in the animal and the machine.”

Highlight:The evolution of the paradigm of modern biomechatronics and robotics can be seen in two main directions, standing as two extremities of a range of future biomechatronics systems: increasing the performance and miniaturization of the hardware platform and increasing the intelligence of the integrated system. Regarding the first direction, the current challenge is to develop sophisticated machines with a higher level of miniaturization and performance, as they can be inspired by insects…a recent paper highlight the current state of achievements in the merging fields of biomimetics and cybernetics*…”

Insight: There are functions in living organisms for which we are conscious and have control over, and others we have no knowledge and little or no control. Examples would include digestive systems, respiratory reflects and inner body vital functions in general. In a way many of these processes are on “auto-mode” like a fine tuned machine. Similarly in business there are functions which we do ourselves consciously and a few processes which have become assisted by machines. However, while to date the assistance has been mild all this is about to change fast.

The hard truth is that the vast majority of jobs out there can, now or soon, be replaced by machines. These do not only include labor intensive blue-collar jobs which require repetitive tasks but increasingly even tasks which have been considered very skilled such as head-hunting, trading or even various medical professions which are progressively threatened of being outperformed by newly developed “smart” systems and algorithms backed by rapidly increasing computer processing power. To put things into perspective the below graphic highlights clearly the trend of the development of artificial intelligence:

power_075

Source: Journal of evolution and technology. At the current rate of increase we are only decades away from computer processing power outperforming the human brain.

It is obvious that the main reasons for corporations to embark on automation are to reduce manpower costs and to boost productivity which in an increasingly unsecured global economic landscape makes a lot of business sense. Replacement of people with machines removes instantly a range of human related burdens for businesses such as poor productivity, various leaves, strikes, accidents…In fact the benefits seem too good to be true. For instance in some cases, like in manufacturing chains, the productivity can be increased by a factor of 100 or more…

Optimists on the issue often refer to a transition period which will be followed by stabilization. They claim that many jobs will be lost (perhaps underestimated) but that the replacements by machines will create many new roles. There is no doubt about this but perhaps the real question to be asked is how many? If one machine can replace 100 jobs but that only a few technicians/engineers may be required to maintain and monitor that machine, all in all it seems completely out of balance…

The very thought of massive jobs loss globally from automation alone (there are other factors which will add-on to these losses) raises very serious societal and ethical questions. If governments allow corporations to take on this path, what is the replacement solution? Are governments ready to pay people to do nothing through a minimal wage system?

It seems that overall large scale automation would be greatly beneficial to businesses but extremely harmful to societies, at least in the current political and economic settings. Like many other mega trends unfolding it is obvious that no one or entities really seem to have a clear solution and that the mind-set is a “wait and see” approach, which is not really pragmatic…

Are you thinking of automating your business? What are your thoughts on the topic?

More information here

What is Biomimetics: the field of gaining inspiration from nature first to solve some of our most difficult challenges. Instead of coming up with our own solutions to a problematic, the odds are that species or natural systems on the planet already offer an ultimate solution. This simple fact is also another strong case to preserve species at all cost as the intellectual heritage contained within or through the study of species is both irreplaceable and invaluable…

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