He had been up all night keeping vigil while his team of super-intelligent engineers put the finishing touches on his plan to roboticize his entire business operation.
The field tests were scheduled for the next morning. The countdown had begun and he just couldn’t wait to see the end-to-end mechanisation in operation.
He turned to his spreadsheet to check his post-roboticization business plan for the nth time.
Yup! There was no mistaking.
He was going to be laughing all the way to the bank in as short a time as one year.
What’s more, he would be known as The Robotics Emperor because he would be the visionary who first saw the yields that would accrue from a one-time, if expensive, investment on roboticizing an entire business operation.
His wage bill would decrease from 30% of his costs to a mere 2%.
A further 5% savings would be generated from high precision, zero defect manufacturing.
Then, an estimated 10% increase in yield would result from eliminating all those time-consuming management and labour meetings. What bliss! There would be no need any longer to spend time convincing obtuse humans of the wisdom of following a certain business path. He could now turn all his attention to negotiating hard with his supply and distribution chain for the best terms in his favour.
Yes, there was no mistaking. His margins could increase by as much as 50%.
Maybe more because consumers would be queueing up to buy his products. How could they not? Where else would they get such high-quality, home entertainment systems?
All he had to do was plough back some of the savings generated from a roboticized operation into marketing and advertising. Why, with the amount of costs saved, he could even look at ruling the airwaves and drowning out his competition.
There was no doubt in his mind. Within the short span of 12 months, he would be listed as one of the world’s richest people and his company’s valuation would be up there in the stratosphere. Once that happened, he would begin building an entertainment ecosystem, beating Apple, Amazon and Sony at their own game.
Five Years Later
The Robotics Emperor looked out of the passenger window of his driverless car on people less streets. The only sign of life as far as his human eyes could see was a lone robot worker sweeping the fallen, autumn leaves from a ghostly residential street, long abandoned by the people who once lived in the houses there.
The furrow on his forehead deepened as his car approached his largest factory warehouse. He knew what he would see there – rows and rows of home entertainment systems stacked to the roof, awaiting dispatch orders from the robotics emperor.
The emperor alone knew that not one shipment would happen. Not for a long time, if ever, because markets all over the globe had dried up and vanished.
It was over six months now since the last order had been dispatched. He had waited a while to see if the tide would turn with news trickling in of one after the other competitor closing shop. Finally, he realized the futility of waiting any longer and pressed the shutdown button on his factory’s operating console.
It was a grim world now. Yet, the emperor made his daily trip to his warehouse. He arrived punctually each morning at 1000 hours and walked the vast expanse, a lonely figure dwarfed by the floor-to-ceiling boxes occupying almost every square inch of the once-expensive real estate.
Today, as he gazed up at the end result of his brainchild, his mind wandered back to a time, four years ago, when he had flown to Bengaluru, India to acquire a robotics manufacturing facility in an attempt to further cut costs.
The Fortune Telling Robot
He had timed his visit to coincide with a robotics fair in the city, touting the latest advancements in the technology.
To provide a few laughs, the organizers of the fair had rented out a booth to a hawker of fortune-telling robots. The robots were actually manufactured by the enterprising people of Asia’s largest slum, Dharavi*.
The Robotics Emperor stopped by the booth for a lark and asked the person manning the stall to ask the fortune-telling robot to prophecize the outcome of his roboticized business operation. On being handed over the fee, the stall attendant dutifully keyed in the question and waited for the prophecy to be spewed out by the printer attached to the artificial intelligence (AI) brain.
The prophecy was a one-liner – There will be no people and no markets!
The Emperor was, at first, startled when he read the line. But only for a second. Then, he threw back his head and let out a loud guffaw.
What did a mere machine know?
Reminiscing about the prophecy now, he realized that the machine did know – a lot! It was the precursor to artificial intelligence upping human brains. It was simple really. AI had no ego, no human greed to cloud judgement.
Too little, too late, the one-time Robotics Emperor title aspirant realized that the very same human ego, arrogance and greed had driven people away from markets and caused businesses to shut down.
He had thought automation would place his business at the top of the heap. In his myopia and arrogance, he had failed to take into account that scores of his business brethren were thinking on the same lines. They were all automating their operations at the expense of human jobs.
It didn’t take long for employment and consumer spending to virtually come to a halt.
Reflecting on the chain of events, he shuddered remembering the long queues of women, children and men outside the soup kitchens after the dole offices ran out of money and were forced to down their shutters. The soup kitchens ran for a while but soon, they too, had no choice but to close down.
That’s when the people began leaving the cities, in search of food.
They began spreading out across the countryside foraging for food like primitive humans.
He winced as he recalled the measures taken then. How agro-giants resorted to hastily manufacturing security robots to patrol their holdings and prevent desperate humans from pillaging for food grains.
The measures taken succeeded and the hungry hordes were beaten back, till they retreated into the jungles and mountains.
Sitting on a stray packaging crate now, the Emperor ruminated, “What did we achieve finally? Nothing but vanished empires. We thought we were kings with the Midas touch. Come to think of it, that’s exactly what we were – hell bent on creating a lifeless world.”
He wondered now if the situation could be retrieved. Could the clock be turned back?
The Dawn of a New Age
He and some fellow business tycoons still lacked for nothing. True, their personal wealth had plummeted in value. The shares they held were now worth less than their face value. Their currency holdings weren’t worth much either. But they still had their huge mansions, their luxury cars and enough food on the table.
Still, he was tired of the robotic existence life had turned into. He was worried about his children as well. The ghostly life they were leading couldn’t be good for their development. Sure, they had vast stores of knowledge at their disposal. And they were learning to rise to the challenges their robot teachers were throwing at them. But he could see their listlessness. There was something, he realised, to be said for human interaction and stimulation.
Anyway, what was the whole point? Even if the remaining children in the cities built on the achievements of the previous generations, what would they do with that knowledge? Build more AI? For whom? And for what purpose?
No, the answer lay in bringing back the people.
There and then, The Robotics Emperor decided to call for a convention at Davos. He had to get the small urban community remaining to take measures to persuade the jungle and hill people to return.
But would they agree to come back?
He had his doubts.
He remembered the long trek he had taken a few months ago to one hill abode. How he had hidden among the trees and watched a small band of people working at cultivating a small field of crops. At the far end of the field were a group of thatched roof huts surrounded by vegetable gardens. Under a tree, a man sat surrounded by children. He was reading to them from a book. Propped against one side of the tree was an old-fashioned blackboard. Everywhere he looked, he saw happy faces toiling at their labour with peals of laughter ringing out every now and then.
What could he and the business baron community he belonged to offer these people to entice them to return?
#Robotics #ArtificialIntelligence #employment #MondayMusings
Author’s Note: This short story is a figment of the author’s imagination, triggered by reports of the increasing development of robotics putting human jobs at risk. The author has blogged about the employment market and corporate social responsibility earlier in Intelligence Upped and Offed, Why the Hindu rate of growth may not be so bad after all, Crystal Ball Gazing Into the Job Market and Redefining Corporate Social Responsibility.
Featured Image Credit: fortune telling robot by Paul Keller (Flickr.com CC By 2.0)
*Making plastic robots for funfairs. Digital Journalist. The photo caption says, “These robots are very popular attractions at fairgrounds around India; they usually have a pair of headphones on their heads – just pop a rupee in the slot and hear your fortune told.