The three waves of robotic automation

We are currently between the second and third waves of robotic automation. For the first two, we underestimated how it would affect us. For the next wave, its importance can’t be underestimated again.

Wave one: physical labour

The first wave was physical automation. If you asked a car factory worker in say, the 1960s, “What is the fastest time a car can be assembled?” their answer would probably have been in the several days, maybe hours.

The video below is from 2012. It is in the Kia factory in Slovakia. Kia’s robots assemble a new car body every 80 seconds.

That was physical robotics, and in the commercial world, physical robots help run the biggest e-commerce companies in the world. The next video shows the robots inside Alibaba, which replaced 70% of the staff – mainly because they take only five minutes to charge, for five hours of work, and can carry half a ton of merchandise.

The robots are one of the reasons we can order an item for under £5, with free shipping, and it arrives the next day.

Wave two: intelligent office workers

Wave one of robot automation disrupted warehouses and manufacturing plants. The next wave disrupted offices. It started a while ago with word processors (replacing secretaries with typewriters), then moved into email (replacing the post room, which ironically has quickly returned due to our e-commerce addiction above!) and is now replacing departments of back office staff.

Companies use robotic processes for implementing repetitive, simple office based tasks. This industry is quickly advancing – a perfect storm of cheaper computing storage, cheaper processing power and quicker movement of data.

This means those robotic processes are moving from simple office based tasks, to more complex ones – applying some level of machine learning and artificial intelligence. Professional careers once thought to be beyond automation might not be so safe after all.

We are going through this stage at the moment, and it’s set to continue for a while.

Wave three: society

The next wave of robotic automation will affect society. It will rewrite the rules we have developed over human history.

For example, self-driving cars will fundamentally change our core behaviour. We’ll need to rewrite our own rules to deal with them.

Our next generation are likely to grow up thinking self-driving cars are “normal”:

The next generation will think “These cars are designed to avoid running over pedestrians”, so why will they cross at pedestrian crossings? Why wouldn’t they simply cross the street, anywhere they want to, whether a car is approaching or not?

Autonomous cars probably won’t have speed limits, or be fined for driving too close to the autonomous car in front. It’s more likely that motorways will become autonomous-vehicle-only roads, because they will be able to drive centimetres away from each other, at over 100 mph. And if we let human drivers on those roads, the accident rate will increase back to today’s levels!

Society will need new rules to restrict humans from driving cars.

What will happen to petrol (gas) stations? And car parks? Why would you pay to park your car in a car park when you can order it to keep circulating around your office block? Why will you even own a car when it makes more financial sense to pool together a few cars in the road where you live?

These kinds of technology-driven, society-level impacts haven’t been felt for some time, which is why I often argue the pace of technology probably felt quicker at other times in history.

Welcome to the third robotic wave.

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