Stanley Bing

I, Robot?

February 27, 2013: 5:00 AM ET

There's no way an automaton could do my job. Is there?

By Stanley Bing

robot-workersFORTUNE -- Ever since my Roomba carpet-cleaning robot ran over my foot and masticated my shoe, I have been wary of robots as substitutes for actual working persons. I particularly felt that my job in management was safe from the incursion of machines with friendly faces painted on the front of their heads, or whatever you call the metal constructions atop their shoulders, if those are indeed shoulders.

Now I'm not so sure. Apparently there are two economists from MIT who believe, as the New York Times put it recently, "that the pace of automation is accelerating and that robotics is pushing into new areas of the workforce like white-collar jobs that were previously believed to be beyond the scope of computers." In other words, my position is now challenged not only by mergers, restructurings, and the incursions of management consultants who have to earn their bread and butter by eliminating mine, but also by robots.

Well, you know what? I don't think there's a robot alive or on the horizon who could do my job. Let's look at it.

Could a robot work long hours under intense pressure on a project only to see it evaporate when senior management turns its gaze to other enthusiasms? Well ... I guess so. Robots don't get frustrated or angry. They don't have drinks with dinner and fall asleep on the couch, either. They don't even need to go home! So ... fine. Chalk one up for the robots.

Can a robot sit in long meetings without dozing, doodling, or disgracing itself? Okay, yes again. Ah, but could it contribute salient observations to secure its status, drawing on past discussions to make sure that what it said was organizationally consistent and not obnoxious to senior management? Probably. But not with the subtlety or panache that you or I would bring to the job.

Can a robot interject a witticism or bon mot that adroitly lightens the mood? No! On the other hand, it could be stocked with a bank of jokes to deploy during silences. Such cybernetic jests would probably be even funnier than when cracked by a human being, especially the ones I know.

What about sucking up? I think I have the edge here. I know that when an elevator says, "Have a nice day," it means nothing to me. So it's possible that jobs that support executives with big egos are still safe.

How about management skills? Could an android listen to the whining, requests for advancement, and entreaties for guidance and affection that pour from subordinates? Sure it could. Frankly, all that would be easier on the robot than it is on me.

Certainly, a robot cannot schmooze. I can't imagine a sales robot, for instance. And it won't be able to enjoy a sausage sandwich with the guys, or forge a bond with its colleagues over a vat of martinis after work. Although I guess you could program a robot to get progressively more stupid and inappropriate. A drunk robot would probably be more entertaining than half the guys I know.

What about passion, dedication, loyalty? Can a robot provide those? No! On the other hand, it's easier to retire a robot when its day is done. You just throw it on the junk heap ... the way they did to Bob Podorsky, who used to head up the Northwest sales operation until last month ...

I'd say this appears to be a tie.

The Institute for Emerging Ethics and Technologies reports that professor Kevin Warwick of the University of Reading, U.K., "took that bold step to implant a BrainGate device onto his median nerve in his forearm to be able to control electronic devices" not too long ago, effectively taking the first step in merging man and machine. I don't think that's a bad direction to go. Wire me up. I don't know about you, but I don't want to be replaced until I'm ready to go back to being a human being full-time.

This story is from the February 25, 2013 issue of Fortune.

Follow Stanley Bing at stanleybing.com and on Twitter at @thebingblog.

Posted in: , ,
  • Are you going to keep your job this year?

    A scientific calculation of a critical personal metric.

    By Stanley Bing

    FORTUNE – Now that we're through the lethal Christmas Firing Season, when corporations celebrate what should be the happiest time of the year by heaving people from the balustrades, it may be a good time to assess our chances of making it through all four quarters of the current calendar year. I believe I've stumbled upon a powerful mathematical tool MORE

    Feb 6, 2013 5:00 AM ET
  • Big questions in the Middle Kingdom

    My friend held an employee meeting in China. It was not business as usual.

    By Stanley Bing

    FORTUNE -- When it comes to doing business, it can pretty much be said that every place is different. I remember going to Irving, Texas, a long time ago, where I was greeted by a gray-faced, six-foot-tall woman dressed entirely in gray with a massive bonnet of steel-gray hair who smoked continually throughout the MORE

    Jan 16, 2013 5:00 AM ET
    Posted in: , ,
  • Get ready for ... Stupid Tuesday!

    The holiday season may come to an end, but that's no reason to stop shopping.

    FORTUNE -- I'm a consumer and I love to shop. You can't give me enough excuses to hit the stores running, elbowing my fellow Americans, kicking old ladies down the escalator on my way to the next six-pack of boxer shorts on sale for one day and one day only. The problem is, in my opinion, MORE

    - Dec 21, 2012 5:00 AM ET
  • Too much weather is bad for business

    Reduce carbon emissions? Move away from seacoasts? Or hunker down and wait for the next big blow?

    FORTUNE -- I think we can all agree that there's far too much $!@#$ weather going on around here. It's one thing when you read about it or see it on YouTube or TV, the $!@#$ weather causing distress for people in faraway places. You can feel bad for them, send money to the MORE

    - Dec 5, 2012 5:00 AM ET
  • Forget Wall Street. Let's occupy lunch!

    A survey finds that the lunch hour is becoming a thing of the past. It's time to take a stand.

    FORTUNE -- My fellow employees, we come together today to defend one of the last remaining rights of those who work for a living: the right to have lunch.

    This simple ritual during the midpoint of our waking hours has been an inalienable pillar of freedom since Nog the cave person struck MORE

    - Nov 14, 2012 5:00 AM ET
  • They shoot horses, don't they?

    My friend outlived his usefulness. I'm having a hard time letting go.

    FORTUNE -- This was a sad week for me. A good friend had to be put down. He got old, that's all. It happens to each of us; we've all got a SELL BY date stamped on our butts. But this was a tough one. It's hard for me to think about him, sitting on a shelf somewhere gathering MORE

    - Oct 24, 2012 5:00 AM ET
    Posted in: ,
  • Talking trash with my email

    Even the companies I love get on my electronic nerves.

    FORTUNE -- I was sleeping the other night, which I do when all my electronics go mute for a few hours between the last text message and the first e-mail. Suddenly, I awoke. I felt as if there were somebody in the room with me. But no, I was alone, as alone as a person can be who sleeps with a MORE

    Oct 10, 2012 5:00 AM ET
    Posted in: , ,
  • The wizard of shareholder value

    Long term be damned. Give us layoffs, cut expenses, and don't forget all the cash you can fit into a sailor's trunk.

    FORTUNE -- I went to see my friend Vronsky, who is trying to keep his corporation on a positive growth curve in spite of, you know, everything. These days that takes faith as well as strategy. So I knew where to find him.

    There he was, precisely where I thought MORE

    - Sep 19, 2012 5:00 AM ET
    Posted in: ,
  • Do YOU play by the rules?

    Take this quiz and find out whether you are in step with the times.

    FORTUNE – It's increasingly clear that the world is full of people who believe that the rules, in life and in business, do not apply to them. Every day you read tales of miscreancy in finance, politics, organized religion, and its cultural counterpart, organized sports. It's no mystery why trust in our institutions is at an all-time MORE

    - Sep 5, 2012 5:00 AM ET
    Posted in: , ,
Current Issue
  • Give the gift of Fortune
  • Get the Fortune app
  • Subscribe
Powered by WordPress.com VIP.