How to Survive the Robot Uprising

Just over a year ago a dear family member of mine lost his job. At almost 50 years old, trained as a mechanical engineer and with the same company for the bulk of his career he was let go. He quickly found himself in the worst employment market our generation had ever known. After a search for a lateral move into another company failed to yield a job he set out to create a higher order set of skills. After matching his own interests to current technology trends, he decided to retrain himself for the world of security and computer forensics. Within 3 months of enrolling in a masters program on the subject he found work in his field.

Fast forward to now and he’s within striking distance of his masters degree and a few hours of training from receiving two additional professional certifications. Most importantly, he’s loving his work, excelling in his field and positioned well for the future. Hearing him retell his story at a family gathering this summer gave me a chill up my spine and a smile from ear to ear.

I thought of that his story as I read news this weekend of an ambitious automation plan unfolding at Foxconn. For those unaware, Foxconn is a large manufacturer behind many of the electronics we user everyday. They employ over 1 million people. And, over the next 3 years, they plan to add another million to that workforce. But, those 1 million new hires won’t be people, they’ll be robots.

Time will tell what impact these robots may have on the current employees of Foxconn, but Arik Hesseldahl from AllThingsD, makes an important observation based the impact of automation on the auto industry:

"as anyone who knows even the barest details of the history of factory automation in the U.S. auto industry is aware, robots have a funny way of causing job losses. While Foxconn already uses some 10,000 robots now, the story says, the number is going to multiply by a factor of 100, to one million robots within three years. If those numbers turn out to be accurate, there is simply no mathematical way that some portion of the 1.2 million people currently in Foxconn’s employ can avoid losing their jobs. And that can’t help but cause other unexpected ripple effects throughout the Chinese economy."

It’s highly likely the Foxconn robots will have a similar impact. And they should.

The role of any technology whether it’s software or electronics should be to free us up to build higher order value. Much of the ecconomic predicament we find ourselves in today is a result of not rising up to create that higher value that automation and technology free us to do. Instead, many are clinging to the institutions and processes of the past in hopes this wave of technology revolution passes, leaving them unaffected. Unfortunately, it won’t. As Seth Godin put it in his fantastic post titled The Forever Recession:

"Protectionism isn’t going to fix this problem. Neither is stimulus of old factories or yelling in frustration and anger. No, the only useful response is to view this as an opportunity. To poorly paraphrase Clay Shirky, every revolution destroys the last thing before it turns a profit on a new thing. The networked revolution is creating huge profits, significant opportunities and a lot of change. What it’s not doing is providing millions of brain-dead, corner office, follow-the-manual middle class jobs. And it’s not going to."

So, here’s a rule for anyone looking to build a business or career in the 21st century- any task that can be automated will. Plan, train and build accordingly. There is so much higher order value yet to be created. And the rate innovation is only going to continue to accelerate.

The robots are coming. Whether we thrive or struggle to survive in this new reality is entirely within our control. The family member I mentioned above is thriving and I think there’s a lesson in his experience we can all learn from.