Dances With Robots

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In 1863 something profound happened to First Lieutenant John J. Dunbar. While recovering from an injury during the American Civil War, he takes solace in the solitude of his new post out on the western frontier. During this time of personal reflection and healing, he not only befriends his Sioux neighbors, but also finds himself doing the same with a wolf that is tracking his every movement. As Dunbar immerses himself in the Sioux culture and people, they give him the name, Dances With Wolves.” Michael Blake‘s 1988 book of the same name would be adapted into the 1990 Hollywood blockbuster western film directed, produced and starring Kevin Costner. As strange as it must have been for the Lakota to see a person playing alongside a wolf, we humans are having a very similar reaction to how robots are changing the face of our work. Instead of embracing the pace of change and advancements, many see the integration of new robots as predators stealing the jobs of good, hardworking Americans.

Close encounters of the robot kind.

New York Times columnist, Paul Krugman, has dedicated many op-ed columns to this very issue. On December 9th, 2012 his piece, Robots and Robber Barons, states: “there’s no question that in some high-profile industries, technology is displacing workers of all, or almost all, kinds. For example, one of the reasons some high-technology manufacturing has lately been moving back to the United States is that these days the most valuable piece of a computer, the motherboard, is basically made by robots, so cheap Asian labor is no longer a reason to produce them abroad.” This will call for systemic and additional challenges to the US economy. If, in fact, this becomes a reality of the new world, it means fewer blue-collar jobs and fewer jobs overall (especially when a robot can be more productive and more accurate than a low-waged human). Yes, we will need a whole new slew of trained and skilled workers to produce, program and maintain this robotic workforce, but this will still leave a shortfall of jobs against a growing population that will need to be educated and trained in what is still a nascent and technologically advanced vocation. As robotic automation takes over, what are human beings going to do?   

There is another, more interesting story brewing that could change the course of robotics, work and the future of business.

It looks like a broomstick on wheels. At the top, you slip an iPad into this two-wheeled robot, turn on FaceTime and suddenly, you can attend meetings in any office or conference room in the world that has one of these thing-a-ma-jigs. Imagine that, you can be anywhere (home, the bathtub, your local Starbucks) while your FaceTime-enabled robot is in and out of status meetings, production updates, on the factory floor and more (although, these first versions won’t be able to take the stairs).

Founded in 2011 and backed by the famed startup accelerator, Y Combinator, Double Robotics (operated out of Sunnyvale, California and Miami, Florida) is focused on building and bringing to market these iPad-based telepresence robots for under two thousand dollars a piece. It would be easy to see this as a unique moment in time when something as expensive and cumbersome as telepresence gets untethered, or you could see it as something more. What if the future of robotics is not about the automation and removal of human beings from the workplace, but rather about the real value is derived from the augmentation and optimization of human beings in the workplace?

The six million dollar man… and woman.

This is not about subdermal implants or bionic limbs, but it is about the integration of human beings and robots to make us work smarter, faster and more efficiently. Double Robotics doesn’t replace the human with a robot. Double Robotics integrates robotic technology to make human beings more effective and more connected. It’s not just the Double. Increasingly, robots are making their way into the operating room. Innovations like the da Vinci Surgical System is designed to make complex surgeries easier. So far, it has been successful with its minimally invasive approach. A surgeon using human movements and gestures controls the actual robot. The is coupled with the robot’s ability to reach and create movements in the human body that a surgeon’s hands cannot. Precision and miniscule movements coupled with human knowledge and skills are becoming commonplace for procedures like prostatectomies and cardiac valve repair.

We are the future of robots at work.

We worry too much about a world where robots replace us. It seems like the bigger opportunity and solution to that problem is to use robots to make each and every one of us better at the work that we do.

So, would you rather be replaced by a robot, or use a robot to make the work that you’re doing that much better?

The above posting is my twice-monthly column for the Harvard Business Review. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original version online here:


  1. It may sound a little off kilter but I was recently helping my daughter with her Homework on ‘The Rise of Hitler’ pre World War 2. I never knew that one of the reasons he rose to power was that he banned labour saving devices.
    To put it in perspective, Germany was in a terrible economic position. Partly recovering from the reparations forced on it by the invaded countries of WW1 but also because the Wall Street crash of 1929 meant the US had to pull back the loans it was making to prop up Germany.
    Unemployment reached 30% of the working population and so Hitler’s drive to get people back to work was very popular. In very short time, unemployment dropped from 6m to 1m. He had many ideas: big labour intensive infrastucture projects, women encouraged to go back to being housewives and anti-machinery edicts.
    Now I am not saying for one moment Hitler was a good man but he understood the value of people earning a wage. Might one problem with mass robotisation (is that a word?) be that people would be increasingly redundant?
    It is no use saying we could all enjoy the leisure time, everyone needs money to live on.

  2. It could mean that. It could also mean that through the augmentation of robots into the work that we do, that we actually get to think at work and remove the more mundane. Everything is up for grabs.

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