The 2020 Mid-Year Economic Update_long

Are You Ready for Robot Managers?

Exponential growth in robotics technology development has expanded how robots may be used in business.
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Computer programs are increasingly demonstrating that their capabilities for identifying and acting on sets of data are more advanced than what humans are able to do. Distributors are already seeing these types of technology in robotic pallet shuttles, automated storage retrieval systems, automatic guided vehicles and autonomous indoor vehicles. But is it possible that they could start to invade the C-suite for companies, as well?

In a recent McKinsey report, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, co-authors of The Second Machine Age, use the example of images being screened for cancer cells. A computer algorithm was more accurate at identifying the areas that pathologists were trained for years to do.

“Just in the past few years, we have seen astonishing progress,” McAfee says. “A digital brain can now drive a car down a street and not hit anything or hurt anyone—that’s a high-stakes exercise in pattern matching involving lots of different kinds of data and a constantly changing environment.”

And McAfee says that the rate at which the technologies are progressing is significantly faster than many expected.

Development of the First Machine Age brought power systems and large-scale transportation of freight and people. Humans were “complements” of the technology, but the coming changes may be different.

“In the Second Machine Age, it’s not so clear whether humans will be complements or machines will largely substitute for humans; we see examples of both,” Brynjolfsson says. “That potentially has some very different effects on employment, on incomes, on wages, and on the types of companies that are going to be successful.”

The machines are able to “learn” things and apply that knowledge to other areas, saving time and money. Another component of distribution that robotics may show superiority in is in management, according to research from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

Robot managers could remove some of the variables that humans can bring to supervising positions, such as personal preference, anxiety, fluctuating energy levels and communication barriers.

But technology has not quite advanced to the point of a robot CEO, says Shawndra Hill, a Wharton professor of operations and information management.

“What’s critical is that there is still a human in the loop to make sure proper constraints are being considered that do not discriminate in ways that are not in line with the law or do not make employees miserable,” Hill says in the Wharton article.

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