Forget Luddite workers. Luddite customers are bigger roadblocks to automation



In researching my recent book, Silicon Collar I expected resistance to automation to come from workers and unions, and from politicians trying to protect jobs. I was surprised major resistance actually comes from customers for a wide range of reasons

Corporate customers worry about poor payback

I interviewed practitioners in 50+ work settings across industries using AI, robotics, wearables and other forms of automation. The broad consensus about automation — cautious optimism.

Many categories of automation have been hyped in the past. In some cases, every 5 years. So many corporate customers worry about project failures and poor payback.

Take AI, even after decades of promises. We keep making progress, and yet there is so much farther to go. As IBM executive Vijay Vijayasankar wrote on his Facebook page:

“To the world that worries about AI, machine learning and assorted algorithms becoming our overlords — I present to you ….LINKEDIN! A trained monkey will pick better job recommendations than what LinkedIn manages to send me in these emails.”

Yale computer science professor David Gelernter thinks we have only scratched the surface. In his book The Tides of Mind, he calls it “the spectrum of consciousness,” which is “essentially a range of mental states through which all humans cycle each day. The cyclical element is crucial and underlies his metaphor of tidal motion. At the upper end of the spectrum, mental high tide, we are focused on the outer world, biased towards logical and abstract reasoning, and more likely to remember our experiences later. But as we drift down through the middle and into the lower reaches of the spectrum, we become increasingly conscious of the inner worlds of memory, prefer narrative to logic, and cross eventually into the difficult-to-remember realms of dreams.”

We still don’t understand much about the lower reaches of that spectrum.

Or take robotics

The first humanoid robot appeared in Japan in 1928. It could do simple motions like move a pen with its right hand. Today, Japan is the leading maker and consumer of robots, accounting for half of the world’s production. Naturally, it has the world’s largest concentration of robot engineers. Yet, these world-leading experts have tried for five years following the Tohoku earthquake to use robots to clean the radiation at the Fukushima nuclear plant. So far, all the robots sent into the reactors have failed to return.

Forget nuclear clean up — how about tidying your hair? David Bruemmer, president and CTO of 5D Robotics, recently described how intimidating a hairdresser’s job looks to a robot.

Consumers often complicate automation decisions

Most companies offer to mass customize their products for consumers. That complicates automation. An example from Bloomberg “the intricate options offered on the new S-Class — from heated and cooled cupholders to four different types of tire valve stem caps — overwhelm traditional automotive assembly robots. Accordingly, Mercedes has begun replacing them with human workers.”

With many products, the machine touch actually leads to discounted prices — cigars, Persian rugs, silk ties and fine foods are some that come to mind. Many consumers pay premiums for the artisan version.

In his book, The Revenge of Analog, David Sax highlights a move back to vinyl, paper, board games, brick and mortar for a number of customers. That often means small batch production or dusting off old equipment and bringing back labor with those skills.

A vivid example of slow adopter customers comes from the auto industry. Oscar H. Banker was granted the patent for the automatic transmission way back in 1940. In 1965, Playboy magazine screamed “Bye-Bye Stick Shift.” Now, over 50 years later, more than half of the light cars sold outside the U.S. still have manual transmission. How many decades before these customers adopt driverless cars? And when they are ready to, they may find some of today’s leading brands missing

Mazda, for example, is counting on humanity’s continued love for driving — what it has branded “Zoom-Zoom.”. Along with Porsche, Ferrari and a few other car makers, Mazda has shown little interest in investing in driverless cars.

Many consumers are passive-aggressive about self-service automation

While some consumers eagerly embrace self-service for its speed and convenience, many others expect a modest discount, considering that they are reducing labor costs of banks, retailers, or airlines. In fact, many are annoyed as banks tack on fees for using ATM machines and airlines charge for printing boarding passes.

This comment on an ABC News story reflects the attitude of some consumers:

“Part of the cost of an item is to pay for the service of checkout. I’m not going to waste my time and effort, and take someone’s job in the process, by checking myself out. If self checkout gave you a 5% discount on the total bill, I’d consider it, but otherwise I’d rather not take someone’s job.”

Still others resent kiosks at Home Depot and elsewhere that capture a video of their transaction. It is meant to reduce fraud, but consumers worry that their privacy is also being compromised.

Taunt them as “Luddite” if you dare. These customers are a source of plenty of revenues for a number of businesses. Automation can wait.

(Cross-posted @ Deal Architect)

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