It used to be that we looked forward to the robotization of everything. We wouldn’t need to do all that sweeping, cooking and wringing any more. A look at a 1950’s era kitchen ad shows just what a transformatory period that was. So profound was the change driven by domestic labor-saving technology (along with the pill), that half of humanity could finally unchain themselves from Betty Draper-style domestic servitude and choose a meaningful and productive life undefined by ‘traditional’ gender roles.
And it hasn’t stopped. Automation I mean. For what is an ATM if it isn’t a robot? They are with us already in everyday life. In my time in design I’ve seen all sorts of proud occupations fall to automation. Typically of the scalpel-wielding, glue-spreading, darkroom variety, these jobs disappeared under the first wave of automation in our industry.
The thing that characterizes this type of job-replacing automation is that the jobs tend to be physical and repetitive. Highly dexterous and manually skilled yes, but the kinds of tasks that a robot with relatively simple software can replace.
Now, a whole new era of automated machines is upon us as the Internet of Things arrives. Uber, Google and Tesla will have us quite nonplussed about traveling in a car with no human driver as soon as the law catches up to allow it. We’ll be routinely snapped on holiday by drones that follow us around automatically recording, editing and posting our holiday highlights, curated to perfection using personal algorithms. And while we’re away, our homes will call the police (robo-cops?) for us while they’re being burgled (maybe by newly unemployed Uber drivers).
Already, restaurants and hotels are in existence staffed fully by robots. In fact most kitchens may well be staffed by robots in the not too distant future. The list goes on. Ships’ crews, truck drivers, builders and even lawyers and journalists are all occupations that will either disappear or be taken over in part by robots (a fair amount of sports and financial journalism is already automated).
And I think we can look forward enthusiastically to this future, one where we enjoy more and more of the boring repetitive stuff in our work being done by robots. But I also think with the rise of intelligent robots, we could see more incursion into the creative idea generation process itself.
Just because we creatives think that we can uniquely find connections between seemingly random concepts to bring fresh ideas to the world, it doesn’t mean that much of this type of work can’t be undertaken quite successfully and, conjecturally, much faster by a smart learning robot, able to calculate the maximum number of possibilities in a few seconds and produce a perfectly curated presentation deck for a new, and slightly scary, breed of hyper-impatient client.
In fact, I’d go further and say that such is the extent of potential in machine-based learning that even the operation of brands themselves could be largely automated.
Using big data, algorithms and AI, is it really beyond the bounds of possibility that with the right inputs, a robot brand control center could not program all media activity and create all the content appropriate to time, place and weather, constantly adjusting as time passes? A little like a Voyager spaceship navigating silently through the solar system over a period of a quarter of a century.
If you think this is all a flight of fancy, we humans have a striking ability to overestimate the near term, but severely underestimate the long term impact of technologies. Because of this tendency to long term complacency, I think even creative and marketing departments will need to be vigilant: I wouldn’t bet that the bots aren’t coming for us too. What will you do with all that free time?
Nick Clark is executive creative director of The Partners.