automation

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.

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