Are robot employees in your future? Robots for small business have moved from science fiction to science fact.
Science fiction author, Isaac Asimov introduced The Three Laws of Robotics in his 1942 book, I, Robot (the basis for a 2004 film adaptation starring Will Smith.) Asimov’s Three Laws are:
1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such actions would interfere with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
For a small business, I would like to add three more laws:
4. A robot must not call in sick.
5. A robot must not request a vacation day.
6. A robot must not ask for a raise.
When most people think robots in business they naturally form a mental picture of manufacturing industries such as automotive, electronics and consumer goods. However, small non-manufacturing businesses with fewer than 100 employees and 10 robots or less represent a growing segment of today’s market for robots.
What Exactly Is a Small Business Robot?
In practical terms, a robot usually refers to a machine which can be electronically programmed to carry out a variety of physical tasks or actions. The word robot can refer to both physical robots and virtual software, but the latter are usually referred to as bots. There is no consensus on which machines qualify as robots but there is general agreement among experts, and the public, that robots tend to do some or all of the following: move around, operate a mechanical limb, sense and manipulate their environment, and exhibit intelligent behavior — especially behavior which mimics humans or other animals.
The International Organization of Standardization (ISO) sets a standard for what constitutes a robot. ISO defines an industrial robot as being an “automatically controlled, reprogrammable, multipurpose manipulator” that is “programmable in three or more axes.”
However, a robot is more than a mere programmable machine like a Mr. Coffee. According to Majid Abai, Chief Sherpa of the IT and robot consulting firm, The Abai Group, to qualify as a robot requires a mechanical component and some level of programmable intelligence.
Abai is the founder and CEO of The Abai Group, Inc. He is a senior executive with a 30-year track record of building, transforming, and leading domestic and international organizations. Majid is focused on innovation, strategy, and execution in tech companies and IT departments. He speaks to technical and non-technical executives on how an effective IT organization and robotics could help increase business efficiency, revenues, and customer loyalty while reducing the costs for the company.
Abai says a true robot includes “the capability to add analysis to its tasks, not just serving as an automatically operated machine that replaces human effort.” Therefore ATM machines are not robots that replace bank tellers, and not because they do not resemble human beings in appearance or perform functions in a humanlike manner. A device that automatically performs complicated and often repetitive tasks is not what Abai would call a robot.
By Abai’s definition, a Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner, would qualify. A Roomba features a set of basic sensors that help it perform tasks. For instance, the Roomba is able to change direction on encountering obstacles, detect dirty spots on the floor, and detect steep drops to keep it from falling down stairs. It uses two independently operating wheels that allow 360 degree turns. Additionally, it can adapt to perform other more “creative” tasks using an embedded computer.
Forget the cyborg imagery of sci-fi too. A Roomba, for instance, does not have to look like a domestic servant with a vacuum cleaner, like Rosie the robot from the 1960s animated TV show, The Jetsons. While a robot can be a machine that looks like a human being and performs various complex acts (such as walking or talking) of a human being, that is not the true difference.
Future Small Biz Jobs for Robots
Robots are best applied in any fixed, purely repetitive task where the motions involved are predictable and routine. These include the four Ps of picking, placing, packaging and painting, as well as some forms of assembly, ironing and welding. Compared to humans, robots are faster, have almost unlimited endurance, are more predictable or just provide outright superior precision. They are also very useful in jobs that are too dangerous for humans, such as handling containers of molten metal in foundries or radioactive substances at nuclear power plants.
Fast food workers, tax preparers and cashiers will be replaced by robots in the future. Here are just some of the other ways small business will use robots.
Nurses and Healthcare Worker. According to MSN Innovation writer Mark Hattersley, the Japanese are taking auto line production and delivering it straight to the hospital bedside. HStar Technologies is now taking orders for its Robotic Nursing Assistant (RoNA) and Serbot, and researchers from Carnegie Mellon University are putting the final touches on a nursebot called Pearl. According to the sales brochure, RoNA is a “stable, highly mobile, dexterous, autonomous, bi-manual humanoid robotic nursing assistant. Equipped with highly dexterous robotic arms of payload up to 10 lbs.” The Serbot is designed to monitor and transport elderly patients with limited mobility. Pearl even has built-in telepresence functionality, which essentially allows the patient to talk through the robot to a physician or nurse. The nurse or physician can control the robot remotely using a tablet device. When not being controlled remotely the robot performs routine caretaking tasks and checks on the status of patients.
Attorneys and Paralegals. The rise of the machines in the legal world is coming. According to Jordan Weissman of The Atlantic, attorneys have employed manual keyword searches to sort through the gigabytes of information involved in these cases. Now more firms are beginning to use a technology known as “predictive coding,” which essentially automates the process at one-tenth the cost. “Several studies have shown that predictive coding outperforms human reviewers, though by how much is unclear. A widely cited 2011 article in the Richmond Journal of Law and Technology analyzed research on document review and found that humans unearthed an average of about 60 percent of relevant documents, while predictive coding identified an average of 77 percent.”
Truck Drivers and Chauffeurs. An autonomous car, or robot car, is an autonomous vehicle capable of fulfilling the human transportation capabilities of a traditional car. As an autonomous vehicle, it is capable of sensing its environment and navigating without human input. Today robotic cars exist mainly as prototypes and demonstration systems. The Google driverless car is a project by Google that involves developing technology for autonomous cars. The software powering Google’s cars is called Google Chauffeur. The U.S. state of Nevada passed a law in 2011, permitting the operation of autonomous cars in Nevada. Florida became the second state to allow the testing of autonomous cars on public roads and California became the third state to legalize the use of self-driven cars for testing purposes as of September 2012 when Governor Jerry Brown signed the bill into law at Google HQ in Mountain View. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder followed suit by signing legislation allowing the testing of automated or self-driving vehicles on Michigan’s roads in December 2013, but this legislation requires a human in the driver seat at all times while the vehicle is in use. For now.
Journalists and Copywriters. According to The Guardian, Forbes.com already uses an artificial intelligence platform provided by the technology company Narrative Science to generate automated news from live data sets and content harvested from previous articles. What makes it possible is that business news content tends to be formulaic and data-heavy, listing places, stocks and company names. The Los Angeles Times, meanwhile, uses robots to report on earthquakes: the organization relies on an algorithm that pulls in data on magnitude, place and time from a US Geological Survey site. NPR has reported on the use of robot sportswriters producing coverage of games.
Customer Service and Marketing Reps. Why outsource to India when you can use a robot instead? Another area where businesses use robots is in their marketing to consumers. Technology companies produce robots to demonstrate new devices or inventions and to create a sense of innovation and progress. Robots are part of interactive displays at trade shows where they compete with more traditional marketing tools for attendees’ attention.
Call Center Staffers and Outbound Callers. Every business needs some form of telecommunications infrastructure to communicate with suppliers and customers. Robots can simplify a business’ call center and handle incoming phone or Internet traffic to keep the channels of communication open and running smoothly. Automated calling robots place prerecorded calls, including appointment reminders and customer satisfaction surveys. Likewise, an automated call center uses a programmable interface to greet callers and direct them to the appropriate information or department.
Inventory Takers. Robots also perform inventory tasks for businesses with large warehouses or sorting facilities. Inventory robots are essentially driver-less vehicles that can navigate a warehouse and select specific pieces of merchandise, bringing them to employees who enter product requests into an automated system. Inventory robots save time and also reduce the likelihood of human error that can cause inconsistencies in inventory tracking.
Entertainers and Performers. Another class of robots used in business are those that entertain audiences. Robots and robotic displays appear in storefronts, in theme park attractions and in television and film programs. Some of these robots are skillfully crafted to resemble real people while others represent fantastical creatures or mechanical robots from a fictional world. Robot characters populate science fiction narratives while special effects robots endure hazardous conditions that would be unsafe for human or animal actors.
But Who Takes Care of the Robots?
Typically, many small business leaders today are not interested in using robots for three reasons: expense, lack of expertise, and fear. All of these will be overcome. As the price of robots continue to fall and functionality continues to rise, the robot employees are coming. The jump in productivity will demand it.
The answer to the lack of expertise and fear objections is to hire the right employees to help with your robotics. Without a doubt, a tough challenge for small business managers with robots is consistently hiring quality people to take care of the robots. These devices need to be set-up, programmed, monitored and repaired. No benefit comes without a price.
Hiring the wrong people to handle the robots will create many problems: reduced time to market, a loss of market share, higher turnover rates among productive humans on the payroll, lost management time, lost customers to the competition and the tremendous opportunity cost of unmet sales goals.
To improve any hiring decision, many companies have found they need to crack the personality code by using robust personality testing. Personality tests are a standard recruiting practice for many branches of the government and military, as well as many Fortune 500 companies when assessing potential hires for key or critical positions. This is not guesswork or an untested science.
Therefore, when hiring robot handlers the secret is to cultivate top performers through a three-step process: assess candidates with an in-depth work style and personality assessments, screen candidates for behavioral tendencies, and manage more effectively based on behavioral styles. The goal is to base your hiring and managing decisions on the best data that can be collected about the best personalities to work with the robots. The same you do for any employee.
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Dana Borowka, MA, CEO of Lighthouse Consulting Services, LLC and his organization constantly remain focused on their mission statement – “To bring effective insight to your organization”. They do this through the use of in-depth work style assessments to raise the hiring bar so companies select the right people to reduce hiring and management errors. They also have a full service consulting division that provides domestic and international interpersonal coaching, executive onboarding, leadership training, global options for expanding your business, sales and customer service training, operational productivity improvement, 360s and employee surveys as well as a variety of workshops. Dana has over 25 years of business consulting experience and is a nationally renowned speaker, radio and TV personality on many topics. He provides workshops on hiring, managing for the future, and techniques to improve interpersonal communications that have a proven ROI. He is the co-author of the books, “Cracking the Personality Code” and “Cracking the Business Code”. To order the books, please visit www.lighthouseconsulting.com.
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Lighthouse Consulting Services, LLC provides a variety of services, including in-depth work style assessments for new hires & staff development, team building, interpersonal & communication training, career guidance & transition, conflict management, 360s, workshops, and executive & employee coaching. Other areas of expertise: Executive on boarding for success, leadership training for the 21st century, exploring global options for expanding your business, sales and customer service training and operational productivity improvement.