For the past two weeks, everywhere I turn I’m running into messages about robots. A company in Japan just released a humanoid robot they claim can replace receptionists and information booth workers. At a conference in Cleveland we learned about robots that are replacing humans in the medical field—including the operating room. And this month’s Harvard Business Journal feature is on the relationship between man and machine…because we’re going to be increasingly working with them in the future…or replaced by them.
I haven’t read the entire issue yet, but I’ve been asking around to see what others think. And mostly people are optimistic that it’s 10 years off or more. Optimistic? They must not be parents. Others are thinking the robots won’t displace workers because we will have to manage the robots. And others think it’s overblown paranoia.
Personally, I can’t help thinking backwards in time to see that perhaps were already more deeply in this issue than we’d like to believe.
For instance, two years ago during my Ireland vacation I met the loveliest people and drank deeply of fairytale lore. But there was another story that’s stuck with me and seems to prick my memory much more frequently the further I get from that point in time.
This story is a history. It takes place in a tiny Irish village during the great potato famine. People were starving. Men were losing their jobs. Times were getting desperate. Those who could afford to flee were fleeing. And the nuns of this small town knew those who remained were in real great danger of dying.
All they had was each other…and one loom.
The nun taught her class to weave. The proceeds from the pot holders and blankets and rugs they made and sold went to buy another loom. And another. The nuns taught the parents to weave. And by the time the industrial revolution arrived in this town, they were famous for not only surviving, but thriving. But somewhere in the height of the industrial revolution, computers came along—computers that could work looms, even up to ten at a time, with outstanding precision and higher throughput, which is business speak for more goods with few problems.
The business side of me says, “Wow!”
Then you walk back into the mill to see the computers at work. One person manages 40 looms. Someone asks him if his ancestors were part of this amazing story that saved the town. “No,” he tells us. He’s from the other side of the island, where he earned a degree in IT. The people who used to work—and live here—are mostly gone because they can’t find jobs in town.
Even now, I feel such a mix of emotions remembering the long moment of silence that followed.
But it does no good to dwell on it. I’m a solutions-minded person…or at least I try to be, Gentle Penguin. So what is the solution?
“You must always start by being clear about what problem you’re trying to solve,” someone once told me. So I think. My daughter texts me and asks me to bring her some lunch while she’s working a long shift at a retail store, and the lightbulb brightens. Personally, I want to make sure my daughters have the opportunity to find fulfilling jobs when they grow up.
So I text her back and tell her, “yes.” Then I whip up something I know she’ll love (and can eat in the 15-minute lunch break she’s allowed), and take it to her. On the way home, I stop at the bank, and instead of using the ATM, I opt to go inside and speak with a teller. She smiles, we laugh about the weather, she suggests a option I hadn’t thought of, and I leave feeling a bit more human.
Silly as it seems, I decide right then and there to prioritize human interaction over machines—avoiding ATMs, self-checkout lines, ordering philharmonic tickets online, gas pumps (well, I might struggle with this one). It’s small, I know, probably impractical too. But maybe my tiny touches will add up someday in the future…if in no other way than to help me feel more human.