Computerizing our Jobs

Rowa_RoboterI often write about new technology such as cognitive software like Siri or driverless cars. These types of innovations have the potential to make our lives easier, but there are going to be significant societal consequences to some of these innovations. Late last year Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne published a paper that predicts that about 47% of all current American jobs are at risk of being replaced by some form of automated computerized technology.

We have already been seeing this for many years. For example, in the telecom industry there used to be gigantic operator centers with rooms full of operators who helped people place calls. Those centers and those jobs have largely been eliminated through automation. But not all of the jobs that have been eliminated are so obvious. For example, modern accounting software like QuickBooks for small business and more complex software for larger businesses have displaced many accountants. Where a large company might have once had large rooms of accounts payable and accounts receivable personnel, these software systems have eliminated a significant portion of those staffs. And many small businesses perform their accounting functions today without an accountant.

Computerization has also wiped out entire industries and one can only imagine the numbers of jobs that were lost when iTunes largely replaced the music industry or NetFlix and Hulu have replaced video rental stores.

Automation has created some new jobs. For instance, looking at this video of an Amazon fulfillment center we can see that there a lot of people involved in moving packages quickly. But we also see a huge amount of automation and you know that Amazon is trying to figure out ways to automate the remaining functions in these warehouses. It’s not a big stretch to envision robots taking the places of the ‘pickers’ in that video.

Some of the innovations on the horizon have the potential to eliminate other large piles of people. Probably the most obvious technology with that potential is driverless cars. One can envision jobs like taxi drivers disappearing first, eventually followed by truck drivers. But there are other jobs that go along with this like many of the autobody shops that are in business to repair car accidents due to human poor driving. We have already seen Starbucks trialing an automated system that replaces baristas and I saw one of these automated systems in an airport last month. There is a huge boom right now in developing manufacturing robots and this are going to replace much of the manual labor in the manufacturing process. But this also will allow factories to return to America and bring at least some jobs back here.

But this study predicts a much wider range of jobs that are at risk. The real threat to jobs is going to be through the improvement of cognitive software. As an example, IBM’s Watson has been shown to be more accurate than nurses and doctors in diagnosing illnesses. We are now at the point where we can bring supercomputers into the normal workplace. I read four different articles this week about companies who are looking to peddle supercomputing as product. That kind of computing power could start to replace all sorts of white collar and middle management jobs.

The study predicts a huge range of jobs that computers can replace. They include such jobs as patent lawyers, paralegals, software engineers and financial advisors. In fact, the paper predicts that much of the functions in management, financial services, computer technology, education, legal and media can be replaced by cognitive software.

Economists have always predicted that there would always be new jobs created by modernization to replace the jobs that are lost. Certainly that is true to some extent because all of those jobs in the Amazon warehouse were not there before. But those jobs replace store clerks in the many stores that have lost sales to Amazon. The real worry, for me, is that the sheer number of jobs lost to automation will happen in such a short period of time that it will result in permanent unemployment for a large percentage of the population.

One job that the paper predicts will be replaced is technical writer. As a technical blogger I say “Watson, the game is afoot! IBM, bring it on.”

Home Automation as a Carrier Product

Savant Home Automation Control Media Room

Savant Home Automation Control Media Room (Photo credit: Gramophone Maryland)

As a gadget guy I am interested in home automation. I stayed in the Hyatt in the Dallas airport last year which has automated rooms. I spent a great hour playing with the blinds, lighting and temperature from my bed. For a gadget nut this hotel gained a wow.

And a lot of people are interested in automating their homes to some degree. The problem they run into is that once they start investigating home automation they find a ton of different devices on the market, almost all from brands that they never heard of. And so they have no idea how to get started.

And this is why there is a product for carriers. As you probably know from reading this blog, I think that if you are a full-service provider that you need to take every opportunity to get into your customer’s homes. Meeting and talking with your customers benefits you in many ways. First, every time you meet them is an opportunity to upsell them. Second, they are able to put a face with your company so that you are not just another person they send monthly checks to. And this leads to loyalty from customers and less churn.

I have one client who has already seen the wisdom of installing home automation systems. He did his research and he picked a platform that is able to handle a number of devices and that looks expandable into the future. But this is the early days of home automation and he is not wedded to that system and he will consider a better one of it comes along.

And here is how he sells it. He will sell the equipment directly to a customer, but he would prefer that they lease it over time by signing a term contract. He makes more money on the lease and customers find it easier to pay over time. He then charges a fee to install the system to cover his technician’s time. Finally, he offers a monthly fee that will cover the labor cost of adding additional devices onto the system later. This fees basically lets the customer pay you to have you come and sell them more hardware in the future.

So what does he automate? There are a few obvious things. You connect this to the thermostat so that customers can easily change the temperature by time of day for comfort and to save money. And there is the old standby of putting light switches on the system so that they can be set to turn on and off when you wish.

But with a good home automation you can also tie in to security systems, irrigation systems, audio-visual systems, and a host of other devices like alarm clocks, smart door locks, blinds, coffee pots, you name it. With the advent of the Internet of Things, more and more devices in your house are going to have a WiFi or bluetooth interface.

A home automation system can save customers money. For instance, along with controlling the thermostat a customer can tie the system into smart blinds. The blinds can raise and lower at pre-set times to welcome the day, but more importantly to save energy by selectively blocking or letting in the sun depending upon the time of day and time of year.

You can also use motion detectors in the system so that a room responds when you enter by turning on the lights and playing your streaming Frank Sinatra. The number of options for a customer is almost unlimited and this is what homeowners find intriguing but also what they find daunting.  There are a ton of home automation systems on the market that will easily do stuff like automate the lights. But it takes programming to do the more complicated (and fun!) stuff. It’s a little more complicated if you want your house to remind you that tomorrow is your anniversary.

And the systems can all be accessed from the customer’s smart phone. The beauty of this is that you can also pre-set alarms. For instance, a customer can have the house tell them if the temperature goes warmer or colder than the pre-set temperature range. They can have the house send them a text every time somebody comes to the front door. They can check in to see that the pets or the kids aren’t killing each other just yet.

Not all home automation is serious. There are silly devices available that can be tied into these systems. Just last week I saw an egg tray that will tell you how many eggs you have left in the fridge. Doesn’t make sense to me, but if a customer wants that, then let’s make it work!