Steve Schramm

December 26, 2021

A hot take on robotics

Growing up a millennial is kind of strange, if you think about it.

I was born in 1989, and sort of "sandwiched" in between a generation that was just on the cusp of a modern technological shift and a generation that are "digital natives." Sure, people knew what a computer was, but the concept of a computer in 1989 was completely different than what it was even in 1999!

Fast forward to 2009, and you're in a completely different technological ballpark.

It's funny that both Orwell's 1984 and Terminator 2 both pre-date me. There's certainly a debate as to how much material from these works is more prophecy than fiction, but the concern of technological overreach is present nevertheless.

The digital native generation, though, is more or less apathetic about this. In their world, the robots (think Alexa) already have taken over!

What prompted me to write this was a video that popped up in my Facebook feed. It showed a robot that was capable of hanging drywall; much slower than a team of trained construction workers, mind you, but it was hanging the drywall regardless.

The video concluded with a montage of what other robots were currently available, which included brick laying robots and robots that could assemble Ikea furniture.

My reaction was twofold: 

  1. We're screwed, robots are taking over everything. 
  2. Wow, hanging drywall and assembling furniture (both of which I've done my fair share) really sucks...

This duality in response prompted to memory a perspective I'd heard some time ago:

Robots are designed to complement humans. That much -- or at least that intention -- is transparent and relatively uncontroversial. But the visceral reaction of most people (particularly those who currently do the sort of work that robots are replacing) is to be alarmed or even MAD about it.

But that's the wrong way to think about it. The right perspective, I think, is this: If a robot CAN do it, a robot SHOULD do it.

Take our affectionately-named Rocky, the robot vacuum cleaner. This is a fairly inexpensive and benign introduction to the world of robotic assistance for most families.

Sure, I could sweep the floor with my broom. But why, when I have a vacuum cleaner? Sure, I could vacuum the floor, but why, when my vacuum can do it itself?

I see no reason not to adopt this mindset when it comes to business/work, except the gut reaction that robots will "take my job" and I will not be not be able to provide for my family. If that is your concern -- and it is a valid one -- what should you do?

The good news is that most people's work requires brain power. Rocky can do an EXCELLENT job cleaning the floor.... but it takes about 10-15 minute of prep work to get the floor ready, given my four kids.

The screen at McDonalds is a much more efficient way of capturing a customer's order (especially by the time you repeat yourself 12 times in the drive thru)... but someone with a brain still needs to make sure the proper food gets into the bag. What's more, someone still has to ensure the customer has a great experience, or they will not be returning!

All this is to say... if a robot CAN take your place, it likely SHOULD, and you should be looking for a way to contribute that is based on your REAL worth and what VALUE you can bring to the table.

Now wait - that sounds harsh. Well, let me submit to you that it may sound that way precisely because you are still engrained with that factory worker mindset. The things I am telling you right now, entrepreneurs have known and implemented for a long time. As a business owner, I CANNOT serve my clients at the highest level if I am turning all of the buttons. Not without outrageously overpricing my work.

In my own business, I hire categories of people to do work. Ultimately, I want all of them to become "intrapreneurs" -- that is, people who work WITHIN my company but who take ownership of it as well. It is my burden as the business owner to bring that goal to fruition. But they are not this way, yet.

I hire people who are MORE skilled than me in certain areas, and people who are less skilled but are good at doing the type of work that is either not billable or is just less "valuable." I also employ "robots"! For example, I pay for monitoring plugins that will automatically alert me or my team at the first sign of trouble. SURE -- I could have a human being who did nothing more than repeatedly log into EVERY website EVERY day MULTIPLE times a day and make sure nothing was broken. But that is tremendously inefficient and -- frankly -- a waste of human potential. 

Robots should do what they can do. Humans should do what only they can do. That is the balance, at least on my current thinking.

Open to your thoughts!

Steve Schramm
IG: @swschramm

About Steve Schramm

I write about marketing, design, business strategy, and productivity. This blog is my personal “cookbook” to help you design a healthier business through self-directed learning. I'm the CEO of NorthMac Services, a small digital marketing and web design agency.