I've run about a gazillion posts on this site over the last few years about the increasing encroachment of automated technologies and the continual forward progression of smarter and smarter robots that are relentlessly replacing human workers in all manner of capacities and in more and varied industries.
Robots and robotic technology and their growing presence in the workplace are no longer new or even novel subjects. But still, even when I know I have read hundreds of these kinds of pieces, and written more than my share of similar, every month or so a new and detailed examination of the new era of robotics at work gives me pause, and smacks me across the mug as a kind of reminder that while we like to talk about some vague concept called 'The future of work' as some kind of nirvana of social, mobile, and virtual collection of random and fantastic collaborations, that really this 'future' has just as much a chance to look grim, dystopic, and (mostly) lacking in actual people.
Do yourself a favor and take some time to read 'Skilled Work, Without the Worker' from the New York Times. The longish piece written by John Markoff does a thorough job presenting examples of the ever-growing application of robot technology in the workplace, particularly in areas and in functions where robots had previously feared to tread, like in distribution centers and even in sportswriting.
If you don't have the time or are not as inclined as I to read yet another 'robots are taking our jobs' piece I will save you some time with three paragraphs that will give you the flavor of the article, and hopefully make you stop for a moment or two to think about your role, your company, and the real 'future of work' our children will inherit"
Take the cavernous solar-panel factory run by Flextronics in Milpitas, south of San Francisco. A large banner proudly proclaims “Bringing Jobs & Manufacturing Back to California!” (Right now China makes a large share of the solar panels used in this country and is automating its own industry.)
Yet in the state-of-the-art plant, where the assembly line runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, there are robots everywhere and few human workers. All of the heavy lifting and almost all of the precise work is done by robots that string together solar cells and seal them under glass. The human workers do things like trimming excess material, threading wires and screwing a handful of fasteners into a simple frame for each panel.
Such advances in manufacturing are also beginning to transform other sectors that employ millions of workers around the world. One is distribution, where robots that zoom at the speed of the world’s fastest sprinters can store, retrieve and pack goods for shipment far more efficiently than people. Robots could soon replace workers at companies like C & S Wholesale Grocers, the nation’s largest grocery distributor, which has already deployed robot technology.
Sure, you can read pieces like this, or read posts like many of the ones I have done over the years about this topic and think - 'That's interesting, but I don't have to worry about that. I'm a knowledge worker, I'm a leader. No robot can do my job.'
Maybe so. Maybe no one robot can do your entire job as it is constituted today. But probably some element of any job could be fully automated, and who is to say that a more flexible approach to both role definition coupled with we know will be the continuous improvement and advancement of robot technology would change the way your organization looks at all kinds of jobs, including the ones held by smarty-pants knowledge workers like you.
So if the question is really 'Could a robot do your job?', it is increasingly looking like there are only two possible answers. 'Yes' and 'Not yet.'