Automation Drives A Dystopian Future: A CEO Claims The Technology Is Already Here

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I went on a tour of a factory floor of a plant with the CEO of that firm. He and his team showed me an automated line. Afterwards, we spent time talking about the project. At this meeting, the CEO mentioned a book called Manna, Two Visions of Humanity’s Future. He talked about how the automation technologies mentioned in that book were already here and could be transformative. So, I went out and purchased the book.

Manna is a piece of software that controls employees’ tasks. At a fast food restaurant, “Manna was connected to the cash registers, so it knew how many people were flowing through the restaurant.” Therefore, the system could predict when trash cans would fill up, toilets would get dirty, and tables needed cleaning. Managers were replaced. Instead, the system told employees what to do via a voice recognition headset. There were also Help buttons scattered through the restaurant, so if a customer was in the restroom and it needed cleaning, they pushed a button. Manna controlled employee task assignment and had business rules to elevate tasks based on their current priority.

These technologies are real. Voice recognition has been used to facilitate hands free picking in the warehouse since the 90s. The technology is a proven winner.

 

Having the software system, prioritize work and assign it is also very real. This functionality is known as Business Process Management. Although building a set of rules to deal with exception situations is nearly not as easy as the book makes it sound.

Further, many of the sensory inputs that allow Manna to sense what needs to be done next are being enabled by Internet of Things technologies. Many of these sensor inputs are not new. Meanwhile, the price of the sensors is decreasing rapidly while the ability of systems to interpret their data continues to improve. This technology is mostly ready for prime time.

But my reaction and the reaction of the CEO to a potential future “enabled” by technology were different. He was exciting about the possibilities. I, on the other hand, only managed to read the first part of the book. I found the implications too disturbing to continue.

The public increasingly views corporations as sociopathic even though most large corporations do publish corporate responsibility reports. While corporations tout social responsibility, it is unquestionable that a CEO’s survival is based on corporate profitability. Profitability is a concern that dwarfs all others at corporations.

When legislators first allowed public stock companies they were not thinking of profits, but of the benefits that corporations could bring to society. The unprecedented increases in living standards and lifespans over that 150 years could not have happened without corporations. But progress has slowed, in many nations the gaps between haves and have nots is growing, and the environment is being impacted by global warming. Some economists and business professionals are beginning to suggest that the way society has allowed corporations to be governed is part of the problem. In the book Prosperity, Better Business Makes the Greater Good – written by a leading professor at Oxford University’s business school – it is pointed out that the way society has chosen to govern corporations is just one of many possible ways of structuring these entities. The book Manna has made me give those arguments serious consideration.

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