The thrill of victory, the agony of friction
One of the media sensations of the 2018 Winter Olympics was Elizabeth Swaney, a Silicon Valley recruiter of average skiing talent, who through a combination of persistence, loopholes and luck, somehow managed to gain entry into the Olympics as a Hungarian athlete. Her lackluster performance
was routinely mocked, but one instructive takeaway was the huge chasm separating ordinary weekend athletes from elite competitors.
In that respect her “stunt” was not unlike the performances
turned in by some other non-athletes in a parallel competition organized by the Korean government. I’m referring to a group of robots on skis that attempted to navigate a small downhill course, with rudimentary skills and minor success. While a few made it through the course, watching each robot was a little like watching a tire roll down a hill and wondering if it was going to hit an obstacle or make it all the way down.
And since the robots obviously didn’t care about the results, nor feel any pressure to succeed, it was hard to even see it as a competition between robots. The implicit competitors to the robots were the athletes of the (human) Olympic games. And by any standard the humans won, and the robots have a long way to go.
The robots, though, weren’t confined to the slopes. The South Korean government, in a move to promote the country’s strong robotics industry, enlisted 85 robots to provide infrastructure support and information to visitors and athletes about scheduling, transportation and tourist attractions, delivered in 4 languages, and the media complied by featuring the story as a fun diversion from the competition.
While these “worker” robots eased the frictions of attending or competing in the games, their activities provided a vivid contrast, alongside those of their skiing siblings, with the accomplishments of the human athletes. As human competitors wowed viewers by landing consecutive 1080s on the snowboard halfpipe or scoring back-to-back hockey goals in record time, the robots vacuumed the floor of the press center, greeted visitors at the airport, or offered water to thirsty guests. Taken together it was a balanced performance—the humans performing frictionlessly on the ice and snow, and the robots eliminating any annoying frictions encountered off the slopes and away from the rink.
Of course, we’ve been cleaning floors and serving drinks for centuries without getting much attention, so why is it so fascinating to see machines lending a (metallic) hand? One reason may be the odd sensation we feel when we see machines acting like people. The other may be the accompanying feeling of dread at seeing them doing what we do, and wondering what’s next, and if there’s a limit to what they can do.
One of the challenges that businesses will face as they automate manual processes is to identify more constructive and challenging opportunities for workers, not only so that those individuals remain gainfully employed, but in order to gain new competitive advantages.
As automation becomes less of an option and more of a requirement, its benefits will become necessities—less a matter of rising above the competition, and more a matter of keeping up. When all invoices are processed frictionlessly on the same platform(s), competitive edges will have to be found elsewhere. Will those advantages be found outside of AP, or will AP evolve to perform more strategically?
Will business advantages continue to be found in technology, enabling the better-equipped to outperform the others? Or will tomorrow’s victors be those with the talent and the human resources to utilize technology to perform more inventively and creatively?
Will we be confined to the sidelines, watching the robots perform, or will we be center stage, doing marvelous things that machines can’t? It may be too early to answer these questions, but it’s not too early to ask them.