Revisiting Next Generation Automation

Back in 2014, the thought of advancements in automation was picking up steam. I wrote about a Next Generation Automation and focused on five primary drivers of advanced automation: the automation of knowledge work, advanced robotics, autonomous vehicles, the Internet of Things, and the mobile Internet. A McKinsey report from that period sized five disruptive technologies that could have an economic impact between $14 and $30 trillion. How much have we accomplished exactly seven years since that Blog post was written?

We have seen progress in every one of the advanced automation areas. Autonomous vehicles are not where many expected them to be in 2021, but steady progress continues. Artificial intelligence demonstrates an ability to out-perform humans in a narrow context – likely making the automation of knowledge work a question of when, not if. Progress in advanced robotics has been impressive, as demonstrated by this little guy that mows your lawn, and the World’s First Robot Cafe launched in Dubai.

In 2014, predictions regarding advanced automation were rooted in the belief that the divide between humans and machines was narrowing, driving the idea that ultimately, machines will replace, augment, or work alongside humans. Nothing has happened to change that perspective and the pandemic may have accelerated attainment. While knowledge work and creativity has long been the domain of humans, much has happened in seven years to call that in to question. Examples of machines encroaching on our more human characteristics were described in an example of a Virtual Composer, a Robot Artist, and a Social Companion.

Robotics in the past few decades has been the purview of industrial robots focused on automating manual labor. They have been anchored, expensive, large, inflexible, and fenced off to protect workers. Advanced robots have greater mobility, dexterity, flexibility, intelligence, and adaptability, and can learn from and interact with humans. In seven years, we have seen amazing progress. Nothing describes this advancement better than Dancing Robots. In my post on these dancing machines, I asked a question about societies reaction to this advancement. Seventy percent of poll respondents reacted with fascination. Please take the poll below to add to the conversation.

Autonomous vehicles have not enjoyed the same progress. We still have four years to realize the economic potential expected by McKinsey back in 2014. That total economic impact of between $200 billion and $1.9 trillion by 2025 seems unlikely. The truth of the matter is that the challenges that hold full autonomy back are difficult. Having said that, stories emerge every day in pockets, with last-mile delivery serving as an ideal testing and development ground. As described in the Future Today Institute: 2021 Trends Report, these relatively low-stakes deliveries will socialize autonomous technology in everyday society, easing the transition to autonomous vehicle systems for transporting people. Additionally, approximately 200,000 Tesla vehicles now navigate the roads using autopilot. So, a new autonomous service here, another one there. As the saying goes – slowly, then suddenly.

The Internet of Things is moving at a good pace and I expect 5G to accelerate that pace. As advancements continue, I still anticipate IoT being the mother of all infrastructures. These combinatorial innovations will enable a next generation of automation that has structural implications – slowly, then suddenly. It’s up to us to manage the transition.

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