Who Will Lead the Robot Revolution?

June 01, 2017

Case categories include: Entrepreneurship   Leadership   Technology   

By Warren Lutz

We hardly notice they exist, but they are everywhere—quietly making our lives easier, our businesses more productive and our world a safer place to live. In fact, a robot might one day even save your life.

Capable of incredibly precise movements and imaging that is far superior to the human hand, robots are playing an increasing role in operating rooms, according to John Pavlidis, CEO of Vytronus, a medical device company developing a novel technology platform for the treatment of cardiac arrhythmias and other conditions.

“The time spent in a hands-on interventional procedure, in which a doctor intensely focuses and is stressed for several hours over a single procedure, can be reduced to just a quarter of that time by someone directing and observing the work of a precise robot,” Pavlidis says. “Instead of having the expert perform one procedure at a time, they could do three in parallel, moving from one room to another while the other patients are being observed.”

Of course, robots aren’t just in our hospitals. They’re in our manufacturing plants, on our roads and in our homes. And according to some projections, they will reshape the way we work in very profound ways. A recent World Economic Forum report, for example, predicts a loss of 5 million jobs by 2020 due to automation.

According to Pavlidis, there are a few electrophysiologists who feel robots could diminish their unique value based on their special skills. But the vast majority welcome robotic advancements that will democratize complex medical procedures and help save more lives. “There is a big variation between top electrophysiologists who perform over 200 procedures every year, and those who only do them occasionally,” he said. “With robotics technology, we can increase visualization, precision, reproducibility and safety.”

Lizz Vilardo, CEO of the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, says technology is poised to transform many aspects of healthcare, not just surgeries. “I think automation will change who delivers care and how it's delivered, such as filling prescriptions and processing medications. Medical records are already electronic, but certainly there are other tasks that can be accomplished electronically or with robots,” she said.

Robotics can also be used to develop new, minimally invasive medical techniques, Vilardo said. In fact, a colleague is developing a technique to examine human lungs using robotics, and the prototype started with a game controller. Another is developing ways to apply artificial intelligence to medical decision-making. Vilardo says the key driver behind these innovations is not to eliminate jobs, but to increase safety. “Currently physicians must keep track of enormous amounts of information about each patient over long periods of time. Taking physicians out of the data tracking equation is one thing that we can do to make things safer,” she said.

Automation can also be used to deliver a consistent customer experience and maximize lifetime value more efficiently. Irit Eizips, Founder & CEO of CSM Practice, says the advent of online, subscription-based products and services makes it easy to detect changes in adoption, engagement, and overall account health. Customer success and account managers use automation to identify opportunities to deliver additional business value. Leveraging actionable business intelligence tools helps them become proactive in mitigating churn risks and detecting expansion opportunities.

“We target client data and apply algorithms that identify accounts needing attention, then automatically trigger whatever the playbook calls for – a visit, a phone call, an email or even live chat – to make sure the customer success manager is more efficient in triaging churn risk or pursuing expansion opportunities,” Eizips said. “If you handle hundreds of accounts, you cannot scale managing your book of business without automatically identifying what your clients need.”

Automation and robotics are not transforming every industry the same, however. “A lot of the work we do requires a human element,” says Lisa Im, CEO of Performant Financial, a specialty servicing provider. “Our employees have to reach out to people to restructure their financial obligations. Automation will allow our employees to be more productive, but not to the extent that we'll see a significant reduction in headcount.”

A major reason for this are federal regulations, which restrict how and when companies like Performant can contact consumers. “We're still bound by TCPA (the Telephone Consumer Protection Act) regulations that restrict the methods we can employ to call cell phones, but that was created at a time when cell phones were a luxury item and you paid by the minute.” Could the continued acceleration of automation prompt changes in federal law? Im hopes so. “It would be great to have a balance of automation and human touch. The rate at which technology changes and transforms is amazing. Even though I may not see how technology can transform an industry like ours, if the regulatory environment allowed it in two or three years, it could happen.”

Depending on the industry involved, robotic technology has its limitations. Jane Macfarlane, Executive Director of the Sustainable Transportation Initiative at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, says there is currently “a lot of hype” surrounding automated vehicles, but it will be many years before they become ubiquitous.

“Automation is not yet able to replicate how humans operate,” she said. “For example, we have technology that can recognize objects in a scene, like stop signs and painted lines, but automated vehicles don’t have any notion of context. If you see a ball roll out in front of your car, you stop and wait for a child to come running after it. Will an automated vehicle do the same?”

Christy Wyatt, CEO of Dtex Systems, a cybersecurity firm, described robotic technology as a “gold rush” with many new companies with new platforms and capabilities. But she says robots can be hacked and microphones, cameras, appliances and even automobiles can be commandeered by nefarious parties to spy on unsuspecting victims. “When you’re hiring employees, you would go through a vetting process and screen people for quality,” Wyatt says. “With robots, it’s less of a human resources process and more of a security process. People will find ways to hook into them.”

While most Alliance leaders agree that automation will eliminate jobs, such discussions leave out the enormous economic and societal benefits.

“I think jobs will move to higher level tasks,” Macfarlane says. “For example, you’re still going to have truck drivers, but collaborative robotics will take some of the stress off the drivers so they aren’t as tired. They will become assistants to humans because robots are really good at repetitive tasks that we really don't like to do.”

Wyatt notes that the rise of automated technologies such as ATMs and online banking have not killed off banking jobs. In fact, big banks like Citigroup have more employees than ever. But Wyatt says leaders need to ask important questions. “What are the opportunities with these technologies?” she said. “When is the right time? How prepared is your market to embrace these technologies—and how critical is it that you’re the first one there?”

As for future job losses, Steve Cousins, CEO of Savioke, a robotics provider, says the U.S. economy remains “pretty healthy” considering rapidly accelerating technology. “We have a larger workforce than we did 40 years ago and under 5% unemployment, which most economists consider reasonable,” he says. But some jobs, Cousins adds, will become obsolete, and workers will need to dedicate themselves to lifelong learning to be successful. “It’s not enough to have whatever skills you came out of college with and assume that’s all you need to know.”

Cousins doesn't believe professional development is an entitlement, but there are good reasons for leaders to provide their employees with training opportunities. For example, at IBM, every two years, employees are asked about their goals, what they are doing to improve their skills, and how the company can help. “Then IBM carves out time to do that,” Cousins says. “People get better over time, and there’s more loyalty to the organization.”

Mike Jellen, President & CCO of Velodyne LiDAR, which makes sensors for autonomous cars, believes automation’s positive impact has far exceeded any short-term job loss. “Automation produced cell phones and computers at affordable prices for the mass market. In turn, the accessibility and mass adoption of such innovations created whole new industries and employment,” Jellen said. “With autonomous driving, automation will provide chauffeur service to the mass market, not only reclaiming lost time to make the day more enriched and productive for commuters, but also empowering a group of people without affordable transportation the means of travel for employment or experiences that they might not have otherwise had.” And that’s just the beginning. “Big data and a world of connected devices will lead to all kinds of new businesses and life improvements,” he said. “As one example, your house will not only always be at the right temperature, but also will have enough intelligence and connectivity to automatically maintain its own food supply.”

“The Jetsons are almost upon us,” Jellen said. “And this is just the beginning.”

Flying cars and laundry that folds itself? Sign us up! But if such a utopia awaits, we’ll be counting on the vision, ideas and decisions of today’s leaders to make it so. And according to these Alliance members, embracing innovative technology may be the best way to not only survive tomorrow’s robot revolution, but actually lead it.