VERGE Boston: 'Welcoming our new robotic overlords'

VERGE Boston: 'Welcoming our new robotic overlords'

Would you be willing to let a robot act as your stand-in?

Before he even started his keynote at VERGE Boston, IT leadership strategist Andrew McAfee -- principal researcher at MIT Sloan's Center for Digital Research -- made a huge statement about the transformative role of technology in the corporate world simply in the way he "walked" out on stage to give his presentation. 

When a scheduling challenge made it impossible for him to attend in person, McAfee agreed to deliver his remarks from Arizona through a two-way teleconferencing system developed by Double Robotics

The solution (usually priced around $2,500) combines an Apple iPad tablet application with a robotic stand that can move around via wheels. It looks sort of like a Segway, with an iPad mounted where the handlebars would typically be located.

As the robot wheeled out on stage, McAfee's face filled the iPad screen, and he began speaking conversationally about how the rules of business productivity and employment are being rewritten by advances in technology ranging from business intelligence and analytics to the sorts of robotics technologies and teleconferencing solutions he was using for his speech.

Much as a speaker would do, the "robot" McAfee scanned the in-person audience -- the Double Robotics solution is two-way, which allowed him to see and gauge attendees reactions in real time and respond accordingly.

His remarks focused on the central theme of his recent book (written with Erik Brynjolfsson), "Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy."

For the past two decades, the gap between productivity gain and employment began growing larger, accelerating the period of anemic job growth that the United States and other economies are still experiencing, McAfee said, offering the requisite charts and statistics to support his thesis. "This is not just a recession story, this is a challenge we were facing before the recession started," McAfee said.

According to McAfee, world economies could feel that disruption for years to come. As an example, he points to potential applications for the driverless car technology being tested by Google, which he believes is becoming about as reliable as an automated monorail transport systems you might find at an airport or in theme parks like Disneyworld.

Could public transit systems become completely automated over time as they travel predefined routes, McAfee asked rhetorically.

Consider that innovation accelerators -- such as the federal DARPA Robotics Challenge -- are focusing more on the development of "humanoid" features and capabilities, and one could be forgiven for being concerned about the answer.

"It is possible to become pessimistic about our future in the face of these astonishing technologies," he said.

Yet, McAfee feels precisely the opposite. By automating certain knowledge-related tasks, he argues that recent advances in technology are steering societies toward a period of innovation that will mirror the Industrial Revolution in its impact. Emerging economies in particular are experiencing unprecedented opportunities for social advance.

As one example, he cited research into the fishing industry in South India, which was transformed by a combination of mobile communications and analytics technologies that have helped eliminate waste and drive new delivery efficiencies, to the benefit of both suppliers and consumers. (An article about that situation was published in 2007 by The Economist.) 

Technology is, in effect, making it more possible to crowdsource innovation. This is inspiring ideas that can be tested and refined much more quickly than in past models for product development or research -- often closed to known thinkers in specific fields and managed within the confines of some massive corporate or academic setting.

While the Industrial Revolution was about overcoming physical limitations and our "muscles," the new revolution is focused on getting machines to handle analytics, numbers-crunching and other time-consuming transactional tasks, freeing us up to concentrate on more intellectual or creative challenges.

"What we are doing right now is overcoming the limitations of our brains," McAfee said.