Imagine, you are waiting for a flight and whiling away time thinking you will shop for a particular item and then instantly the task of shopping actually gets done – without you touching your tablet or laptop or smart phone. This may seem bizarre, and even unrealistic, at least in the near future, but unprecedented and accelerated progress is being made globally towards helping humans do their tasks without them actually doing the tasks. From building cars, irrigation timers, dishwashers, creating music, vacuuming a room, automatic air conditioning, etc., to self-driving cars.
In other words, Automation is not an evolution of technology, but, is an evolution of trust, i.e. Humans trusting non-human elements to perform tasks on their behalf. And as humans get accustomed to rely more and more on non-human entities for their daily lives, the possibilities keep getting endless.
The dawn of Automation
It is common argument that automation is not new. It has existed since the time humans learnt to live in a society. A good example would be how farming was accomplished during pre-industrial era. As farming started to become a popular and essential industry for survival, humans quickly learnt how to automate farming activities using animals. They realized that any repetitive process can be performed using another entity that is not as intelligent as humans, as long as the task is well defined and controlled. Another modern example would be a weighing scale. The weighing scale simply automated the process of weighing objects with the help of spring balances, which then were replaced by electronic balances using piezoelectric transducers.
Information Technology has been an enabling force for various industries over 6 decades, that is, ever since the first computer was invented. But historians would tell us that mechanical analog computers were used in World War II for aiming torpedo. Some even believe that analog “computers” were used during medieval era for astronomical calculations. The concept of automation took a new revolutionary step with the advent of perforated paper tapes that were used to automate the textile industry as early as 1725.
However, the real revolution happened when the semiconductors were invented in the 1950s. The speed of automation took an exponential turn as computers started to evolve faster, smaller and smarter. As Information Technology slowly became a significant entity within every modern enterprise, the role of automation got ubiquitous from processing huge volumes of information to making business critical decisions on behalf of humans.
Future of Automation
The future of automation is predicated on the possibility of building non-human entities (called robots!) that can perform not just faster than humans, or do certain tasks better than humans – but can really behave like humans. In other words, the future is all about cloning the human behavior, without actually cloning humans!
Imagine, when you are invited to multiple meetings at the same time in different locations. One of the common ways to resolve this conflict is to delegate lesser important meetings to subordinates. The delegated participants tend to be just note takers in most of those situations, which defeats the purpose of delegation. Perhaps, in the near future, you will be sending an invisible cloned robot to attend one of those meeting, who will not only participate in the meeting and take notes, but will also be making business critical decisions in real-time, just as though you were physically present!
The other side of automation is the impact it is likely to have on the human race. My 10 year old daughter, who was sitting next to me as I was writing this article, argued with me that in the olden days, families had more kids because the society needed people to do manual tasks – from farming, mining, knitting, construction, etc. With more and more automation happening all around, she believes that human dependency on one another will diminish to an extent that in the future, humans will live in isolation, leading to eventual extinction of the human race; and the world will be left with robots that create other robots! Pretty scary, indeed!
However, as recent history would tell us, automation in enterprises has had tremendous impact on the speed and quality of business in general. For example, invention of ATMs has certainly automated and improved the banking experience, which may have eliminated several hundreds of thousands of jobs, but, on the other hand it has led to creation of higher paid jobs in other areas. In this case, manufacturing of ATM machines, designing and implementing the business processes for the ATMs, etc. As the concept further evolved, mobile phones are now starting to replace the ATM machines. The end result is that people can perform banking, without really visiting a bank.
So, that begs the question – What aspects of human life can we automate today – so that things get done, without actually doing them next time! Can we automate the process of thinking?