The next industrial revolution: How robots will help us be more human

Written by Mihir Shukla in Changing the world with automation on September 15, 2014

The media today has issued an indirect challenge: imagine the world around you completely automated, or perhaps, run by robots.

The world is and always has been driven by people.

Nurses help bring you back to health, accountants do your taxes, construction workers make the buildings you work and live in, and back office workers clear checks that you depend on.

Many of these services truly require the human touch. They rely on our core strengths: to understand one another, be creative, have empathy, and make a judgment call. However, parts of these services don’t play to our core human strengths at all.

When I visit any organization—Fortune 1000 or midsize businesses, in the U.S., Europe, or the BRIC countries—I see a commonality: hundreds of people performing back office processes, data entry, and other work that relies on human intervention to "input" or to "check," to "find” or to “match" things. I have seen back offices in U.S. banks where hundreds of people are verifying and inputting data, healthcare companies with hundreds of people checking claims, BPO firms employing 10,000 people to process invoices, and airlines matching flight logistics information. All over the world, companies are doing processes where human intervention is not adding value.

I can’t help but think this work is—for lack of a better word—“robotic,” and a waste of human potential.

The world around us is changing.

We hear a great deal of information regarding robots—hardware robots that roam the factory floors and software robots that run stock market trading. In reality, society has been on a journey that includes robotic work alongside human work for a long time.

The journey is now at a pivotal point.

Advancements in digitization and computerization, coupled with cognitive-capable, general purpose software robots, are enabling computers to play a trusted role in many services that people currently execute—and many of these services can be done by computers, with little to no human intervention.

For many, this produces anxiety. We worry what this will do to jobs. But we’ve felt this before.

In the industrial revolution of the 1920’s, people feared that the human job market as they knew it had been obliterated. It had become the age of machines, and people feared the dehumanization of the working world.

They couldn’t have been more wrong. The industrial revolutions that created railroads, manufacturing solutions, and agricultural and textile technology (to name a few advancements) also created the middle class in America and the rest of the world. In known human history, these revolutions were some of the largest wealth creators. Without them, we all would still be in fields making sure we have enough to eat, or sewing each stitch of our clothing with a needle and thread. Instead, we as a race became more creative. We invented jobs that are far higher paying. We explored the depths of the oceans and the far reaches of space. And it made us who we are today.

Whatever name we give it—machines, robots, software, or offshoring—anything that can do things faster, better, and more cost effectively enables us to free up skilled people for higher-value contributions elsewhere and, inevitably, is good for the economy and human quality of life.

We’re on the brink of the next industrial revolution.

Today we use software in almost every aspect of our lives. But things are changing significantly. The advancement of general-purpose software robots has reached a level of technological sophistication and acceptance that will lead to the next industrial revolution. And this one will be no less promising. Initially, its greatest impact will be felt in large and medium-size businesses – those that will be able to realize the benefit of massive efficiency gains, large scale resource reallocation, and significant levels of error reduction almost immediately. Worldwide, hundreds of thousands of business processes will be automated using general purpose software robots. Outsourcing and offshoring will be reinvented. Automation will bring more jobs into developed nations, and the low paying jobs of India, the Philippines, and other countries will be replaced by higher paying jobs in the same countries. Like the earlier industrial revolution, this revolution will enhance the standard of living worldwide.

Software robots are just the beginning.

The transformation is upon us, and while software is a key part of it, the world’s vision for a better future requires something more. Software doesn’t change the world. People do. It’s our ability to understand, embrace, and lead a change that will ultimately bring the next revolution to fruition. It’s time to move past the cumbersome tasks that hinder our potential, and grab ahold of the next wave of efficiency, affluence, and creativity. Who knows what we might invent next?

It’s time to be more human.

How is the "rise of the robots" affecting the world? Why is it being labled a "disruptive" technology? We've got the answers to those questions here.