The Organimi blog explores issues relating to organizational design, the changing nature of work, and the impact of technology in the workplace.

What’s Going Down Around Here? Workplace Version

How long do you think it will be before you see an org chart – like the one below – where the robots outnumber the human beings?

Will this happen in your lifetime?  Will we even need org charts for robots at work?

How will they fit in to reporting structures anyway? Will it depend on whether they operate autonomously or not?

These are good questions, even if they may not sound like questions today’s HR professionals need to answer.

In our last blog we touched on one of what we think are the two biggest trends in work today – the increasing popularity of remote work, aka working from home, aka telecommuting, particularly for individuals working in the services and knowledge based industries.

Today’s blog focuses on another major structural change to workplaces  – the implications for work, and workers, resulting from the substitution of increasingly intelligent technologies in our workplaces.

In the Buffalo Springfield 1960s rock classic For What It’s Worth, Steven Stills writes “there’s something happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear”…and invites everybody to “stop” and look at “what’s going down”.

The song was initially written about the Sunset Strip “hippie riots” of 1966, young people in LA protesting 10 p.m. (if you can believe it) curfews being imposed on their Hollywood clubbing activities.  (These days most clubbers don’t even get out until midnight.)

This song developed much longer legs as a protest anthem during the Vietnam anti-war movement a few years later.

But, as anyone who has seen the documentary CitizenFour about the disclosures of Edward Snowden knows, the underlying “stand-back-and-take-a-look” theme remains no less relevant today,  50 years after it was first written, across many areas of our lives – at work and outside it.

The Robots Are Coming! The Robots Are Coming!

Is the increasing deployment of robots one of those areas for us all to take a good look at “what’s going down”?

RobotsA brief story illustrates the point.

A couple of years ago Taiwan based FoxConn, one of the world’s largest  manufacturers of advanced electronics devices, best known for its production of Apple phones and other mobile handsets, captured huge global media attention when it announced plans to create up to one million new jobs at its China based electronics assembly complex.

In the so-called “Western world” (the OECD economies that is), a region used to a constant stream of announcements in recent years about overseas movement of manufacturing jobs to lower cost countries, there was nothing exceptional in this announcement at first glance. ….except that FoxConn proceeded to confirm that all of these positions would be filled by robots.

These new “Foxbots” (not to be confused with the Femmebots of Austin Powers fame) were intended  “not merely [to] complement factory workers, but replace them”.

FemmeBotsThe FoxConn plan was audacious, likely misreported, and definitely sensationalized, since this single investment would have effectively doubled the number of robots in production use worldwide according to industry data.

The truer number likely reflected a pace of adoption closer to 20,000 to 30,000 robots per year, meaning the FoxConn program will roll out over a decade long time scale, in the process continuing to lengthen the lead of this region in the adoption of advanced industrial manufacturing capabilities.

Robots: Here To Stay Or Smash Away?

As everyone knows, automation is not such a bad thing.  We’ve aready been through the first industrial revolution; even a second one, have survived both, improving our global quality of life in the process, and are now well launched into round three.

In many cases, automation over the past decades has eliminated jobs and mundane tasks few if any people wanted to perform.  In the future?  Increased deployment of robotics in Japan, for example, is seen as a method of addressing a looming and significant labor shortage, as well as addressing sector specific needs for things like elder care.  These two issues – aging populations and skills gaps in key sectors – are expected to be major issues for more and more societies globally in coming decades.

This ambivalence was also evident in the debate surrounding the FoxConn announcement, an organization with a checkered history in the eyes of labor activists for its challenging workplace conditions and alleged high suicide rates. Cynics pointed out that the company was simply seeking to do an end run around workplace disturbances, and demands for improved job conditions.  Others saw progress.  Writing in Singularity Hub, David Hill notes “While there are those who worry that the rise of robots will bring about the end of work as we know it, others see the Foxconn working conditions as violating human rights, and therefore, might welcome robotic replacements, if it means that conditions for the remaining human workforce could improve….”

For some, at least, that may be a big “if”.  It is difficult to believe the mass displacement of people by machines would not have many of the same negative human side effects as being employed in challenging work environments.

Disintermediation”  and “disruptive innovation” are two of today’s most common business themes.

Loved by investors and entrepeneurs (for their promise of huge profits and “10bagger” exit returns), and equally feared by legacy businesses and labor union leaders, they are core tenets of the “creative destruction” school of capitalism.

These days, the process of disintermediation and innovation is increasingly correlated with the use of technologies that trigger job losses in a significantly broader swath of industries and geographies than was previously the case.  The increasingly observed result appears to be significant, continuing, global downward pressure on labor rates (across all categories of workers in recent years up to and including “knowledge workers” and skilled professional positions in finance, accounting, law, education, programming, medicine and elsewhere).

One need not be a Marxist, or even left of center on the political spectrum, to see the decoupling of productivity growth and labor incomes that has emerged in more mature economies over the past few years.  The topic has been studied and debated for years.  It has become the source of widespread commentary of all types and spawned a cottage industry of “end of work” theorists building on the work of Jeremy Rifkin, of 20 years ago.  It is no accident that entrepreneurship, small business ownership and self-employment have exploded over this time period.  As the old saying goes, “necessity is the mother of invention” – or in this case, for many people, personal re-invention.


And the issue is by no means a “first world problem“.  With the use of smart machines and intelligent fabrics, for example, factory owners will soon be able to deliver superior finished goods locally in major market centers at scale with costs below those of Bangladesh cut and sew shops.  The advent of 3-D printing suggests an entirely new model of cottage industry manufacturing taking on traditional large-scale firms.

But is this development really any different than the traditional debate that has raged between the opponents of technological adoption (the slow changers) and the proponents of innovation (the laissez-faire liberals), with all the creative destruction it visits on economies and social structures?

One might wonder, if change is so frightening, where are the Luddites?  This term, derived from the textile workers of early industrial Britain who protested against the introduction of new labor-saving machinery, has been used in recent decades to refer – often perjoratively – to the reluctant among us who are not willing or able to adapt to new technologies.

In today’s slow growth economies, and with new technology innovations threatening the economic models of even the lowest cost labor environments, in everything from textiles to garments to foods to professional services, there is likely to be a lot more time given in popular culture to Luddites then there used to be.  But there don’t seem to be too many of them around.

The Business of Robotics: Lean, Mean…Moral?

Robotics is big business with innovative companies and billions of dollars of annual sales up for grabs in a competitive industry.

Like all industries before they achieve their “tipping point” robotics is currently one of those 50+ year old industries that always seems to be on the cusp of overnight success.  It is also no suprise that much of the innovation in and around robotics, particularly in the area of autonomous intelligence, as well as the exploration of the human-robotics interface, has come from military applications, and pales in comparison to what the military likely currently deploys.  As recently noted in the ParisTech Review, and as would not be a suprise to anyone who has been keeping a tally of the American drone strikes on Al-Qaeda,  “defense industries have contributed significantly to the recent growth of civilian robotics”.   Criminal use cases are also, not surprisingly, starting to pop up, or in the case of meth-drones at least, come down.

Half a century ago, Isaac Asimov, the well-known American author of popular science books and science fiction novels, popularized some basic ethical standards supposed to be assigned to our use of robotics technologies –  The Three Laws of Robotics .  These laws are likely useful, but they are more akin to the 10 commandments then the golden rule

In today’s environment, with Moore’s Law, Metcalf’s Law and all the other technology laws of the Third Industrial Revolution in the mix we can safely conclude the following:

  1. Robots will become increasingly powerful (capability).
  2. Robots will become increasingly autonomous (intelligence).
  3. Robots will become increasingly affordable (cost).

The inexorable conclusion from these rules, when compared with the alternative option of imperfect human labor which requires R&R, continually demands pay increases, and can perform erratically, especially after the long weekend holiday break, is that robotics will increasingly assume a larger and larger role in many – if not most – traditional work environments, whether “manufacturing” or “services” oriented.

As David notes, for example “in the end, we all know that the future of manufacturing is all about robots. It’s a question now of how fast the transition will occur and whether governments, businesses, and organizations will be able to adjust with the shifting workforce and economies.”  As the Economist points out this will be the case everywhere since “the lines between manufacturing and services are blurring”.

So how will these developments and trends impact on our workplaces and on our relationships with each other and with these increasingly capable machines.

The International Federation of Robotics  is one of many hundreds of organizations world wide involved in the design, development, deployment, use and servicing of robotics systems and artificially intelligent technologies.  According to the IFR 200,000 robots have been deployed globally to date, with 2014 being another “record breaking” year in a four year string of substantial increases.  You can see at the IFR a timeline showing how robotics has evolved over the past 50 years.

IFR describes as its mission as being “to promote and strengthen the robotics industry worldwide, to protect its business interests, to cause public awareness about robotics technologies and to deal with other matters of relevance to its members”.  Activities supported by the association include

  • helping manufacturers and integrators of robotics to enter into new market and to gain information about the latest technological trends in the field of robotics.
  • collecting and interpreting market relevant data for world-wide surveys, studies, statistics and other data on the world-wide use of robotics.
  • establishing links to and actively co-operate with other national and international organisations in the field of robotics.
  • managing the links between the robotics industry and research & development activities in new fields of emerging robots and related technologies.

The IFR has even developed industry specific language to support its efforts including the analysis of future trends, such as the concept of “robot density”

Curious about who the people are behind the IFR?  You can see the executive of the IFR in an Organimi org chart below, made in a few minutes and hosted online, with public source data gathered at

The question, though, is not so much “who” these people (or the others like them across all the organizations worldwide working autonomously and largely anonymously in this area) are, or what they are doing.

Rather the question is about how they and the hundreds of others involved in these projects are thinking and approaching the economic, social, political and moral consequences of the decisions they are taking….if they are thinking about them at all.

Encouragingly, perhaps, IFR’s next CEO summit scheduled for March, 2015 has as its theme “Robots and People Working Together”.

There’s A Robot with a Gun Over There..Telling Me I Got To Beware

As research on robotics, mechatronics, quantum computing, artificial intelligence and other advanced academic disciplines converge and accelerate, some very thoughtful individuals – most recently Elon Musk and Steven Hawkin, among others – are raising more than a few “proceed with caution” red flags.
These range from cautions that safety and weapons systems using these technologies need to be designed with overrides “to ensure that meaningful human control is maintained”, to Stanford’s One-Hundred Year Study of Artificial Intelligence which includes “Loss of Control of AI systems” as an area of study — specifically highlighting concerns over the possibility that “we could one day lose control of AI systems via the rise of superintelligences that do not act in accordance with human wishes – and that such powerful systems would threaten humanity.”

One vision of our future sees human and artificially intelligent technology combining in a “mashup” of sorts.  Another, more dystopian view, sees a “tipping point” being reached, where human intelligence (and therefore control) is displaced by faster thinking, more rapidly developing, and increasingly autonomous machines and systems.

LaboticsWho knows where we will end up?

In a case of life imitating art, or at least imitating Hollywood films, in the form of the Terminator Trilogy, US military research suggests that by 2030 in miltary applications at least “the capacity of machines will increase to the point that humans will become the weakest link in a wide range of systems and processes”.

Fifteen years doesn’t seem that far away.  Fifteen years ago, the Internet the public knows today was accessible to only a few.

Where will the ethics and moral dimensions of human-robot interaction come from? How will they be embedded into these machines?  By whom?  How will this evolve? How can they be compromised?  What will be the consequences of these failures?

Will ethics be based on an anglo-saxon “happiness” model, driven by utility, and whether the highest good is being served, or an eastern model  with robots being one more partner in the global interaction of things.

Who knows?

RoboticsAt this stage it likely makes sense for there to be a whole lot more exploration of the morality dimensions of the human-robotic interface.

There seem to be a lot more questions than answers.

As the Economist notes “the sooner the questions of moral agency they raise are answered, the easier it will be to enjoy the benefits that they will undoubtedly bring”.

That way, when you look up your org chart a few years hence and see that you now report to a machine, you’ll know how to treat them…and, equally importantly, when they see you, they will know how to treat you as well.

In the meantime, just remember, you can always create and share your org charts – whether or not you have robots on site – with Organimi.

As always, thanks for reading.