Beyond Robots: The Service Economy

In his amazing book, The Rise of the Robots, Martin Ford paints a fairly grim picture. He recounts how we moved from an agrarian society to an industrial one. Technological improvements simultaneously pushed people off the land and pulled them into factories. When the technology improved again, there was the emergence of new service based enterprises. We moved from factories in to office buildings. The jobs we lost off the land, and then from the factories, ended up in office buildings, more or less.

Ford claims another significant shift is about to occur, but without the job replacement that has happened in the past. The emergence of artificial intelligence and autonomous robots will slash the service economy. The IBM developed reasoning computer Watson is already assisting in healthcare across the globe and has started moving into the financial services sector. Artificial Intelligence services have also been introduced as teaching assistants in some universities: students wrote to their online assistant with various queries about scheduling and logistics, and received a computer-generated response. The online assistant received very high ratings from students about the service. Only they did not know they were being served by a computer.

What does this mean? Any service that requires manual data entry or repetitive processing will likely be replaced in the next five to ten years by automated computerised services. If you are in bookkeeping, accounting, libraries, university student services, healthcare, this ought to be a heads up warning sign. Your job will be changing radically, if not disappearing in the near future. Even hospitality is not exempt. In Japan, they already have a robot-run hotel and completely automated sushi restaurants.

Ford heralds this as a giant financial global risk. Unlike in previous economic evolutions, there is nothing to replace the displaced service workers. We will all sit around with our home service robots making us risotto and a glass of cabernet sauvignon with nothing to do. Bored and unemployed.

I think this is a poor perspective on the very nature of the human condition. From the moment we arrive as a squawking bundle of joy, we soak up and seek the experience of being human. Exploring and savouring this one precious life is our ticket to ride on this planet.

All technological innovations have been about making our lives better and easier (though email seems to be the one thing that has faltered in this regard). When we invented electricity, a lot of coal delivery people were left out of work. When we invented modern tools for the kitchen, plenty of kitchen hands were let go. Yes, we lost jobs. And then we got busy inventing new ways of doing things better, creating new opportunities, and new jobs.

Here’s one thing the robots won’t replace: our relentless desire to explore the bounds of human potential.

I believe that we are about to launch from the Service Economy to the Experience Economy. What will drive economic development will be our curiosity to discover more about who we are and the world in which we live, on this planet and beyond. Why else would Elon Musk and Sir Richard Branson dump so much cash into projects like space travel and man-powered Mars expeditions?

They want to know what it is like to be human in space. And they figure other people want that too.

What does that mean if you are not a quadzillionnaire?

This is how we might re-invent our roles as robots relieve us of our tedious automated work:

Accountants might look at the experience of their clients and ask, ‘How can we make financial management extraordinary for our clients?” What if they had a series of virtual reality programs they could offer their clients to help them develop a plan for their future finances? What if accountants and financial planners helped their clients to reinvent themselves throughout their lives? Accountants become not only money managers, but Lifestyle Designers.

Universities might experiment with the student experience with this driving question: “How do we help our students discover the difference they want to make on the planet, the challenges they most want to solve?” The University then helps them collaborate with other students to discover possibilities through things like virtual reality, augmented reality, and actual reality. The University becomes a true place of discovery and collaborative design rather than a didactic transfer of information.

Restaurants can reinvent their premises as an experience-focused offering: Just like this Japanese restaurant which offers nude dining, though with controversial size and weight restrictions.. A Restaurant might explore how it can integrate the dining experience across a number of different platforms: a virtual reality tour of where the ingredients were sourced, a live tour of the farms that supplies it, a hologram explaining all the specific health benefits of particular menu choices complete with 3D model of the nutrients being digested, with the bone repair and tissue regeneration being modelled from it.

The wildfire development of online interactive game platforms has long-known that the desire for experiences is an insatiable appetite – and they have the billions to prove it.

So whether the experience is virtual, augmented, or actual, the Experience Economy will rise, to serve these questions, “What does it mean to be human, and how we can take that to the edge and beyond?”

How can you reinvent your role to one that offered extraordinary experiences? I’d love to hear your ideas.

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