When the first industrial robot, Unimate, appeared on a General Motors assembly line in 1961, it was a modern marvel. The job it performed, transporting die-castings and welding them onto car bodies was not only onerous, but dangerous to human workers, who faced both the risk of injury and being exposed to toxic fumes.
Over the last 50 years, robotic machinery has been vastly improved. Due to more sensitive motors and actuators, they’ve become incredibly precise, which enables them to work with small components, often with far more accuracy than a human can achieve. That’s what’s has allowed robots to move from making Buicks to smartphones.
Yet the future lies not in greater precision and accuracy, but the ability for robots to collaborate effectively with humans. Rethink Robotics is one of the companies at the forefront of this revolution, so I talked to Jim Lawton, the company’s Chief Product and Marketing Officer, to learn more about what we can expect the future of robotics to look like.
In the early 20th century, the great sociologist Max Weber noted that the sweeping industrialization taking place would lead to a change in organization. As cottage industries were replaced by large enterprises, leadership would have to become less traditional and charismatic and more organized and rational.
He also foresaw that jobs would need to be broken down into small, specific tasks and be governed by a system of hierarchy, authority and responsibility. This would require a more formal mode of organization—a bureaucracy—in which roles and responsibilities were clearly defined.
Over time, the likes of Vanderbilt, Carnegie and Ford were replaced by professional managers and the nature of work became less that of sweatshops and more that of “the man in the gray flannel suit.” Today, we are undergoing a transformation every bit as dramatic, a shift from hierarchies, strategies and tactics to networks, platforms and movements.
Look back to the year 2001 and it’s hard to imagine how different the world was. Global Internet penetration was just 5% then, compared to 50% today, and connection speeds were frustratingly slow. Mobile phones were fairly common, but were capable of little more than voice or text. Google was still just a startup.
Even if you could get online, there wasn’t much to do, besides email and some very basic information services. YouTube was still five years away and people weren’t sure if e-commerce was a viable business model. Many didn’t think Amazon would survive. Social media, of course, wasn’t even on anybody’s radar screen yet.
If the progress since then seems incredible, strap yourself in, because the change over the next 15 years will be far more fundamental and pervasive. Probably the biggest shift will be in how we use technology. While the advancements of the last 15 years have been mainly confined to the virtual world, by 2031 we are going to see the physical world transformed.
For the past 20 or 30 years, innovation, especially in the digital space, has been fairly straightforward. We could rely on technology to improve at a foreseeable pace and that allowed us to predict, with a high degree of certainty, what would be possible in the years to come.
That led most innovation efforts to be focused on applications, with a heavy emphasis on the end user. Startups that were able to design an experience, test it, adapt and iterate quickly could outperform big firms that had far more resources and technological sophistication. Agility was often the defining competitive attribute.
Yet in the years to come the pendulum is likely to swing from applications back to the fundamental technologies that make them possible. Rather than being able to rely on trusty old paradigms, we’ll largely be operating in the realm of the unknown. In many ways, we’ll be starting over again and innovation will look more like it did in the 1950’s and 1960’s.
By any measure, Children’s Health in Dallas is a world class institution. It boasts a top notch medical staff, is consistently ranked among the best children’s hospitals in the country and features a Level 1 Trauma Center. Yet by 2011, despite the accolades, its CEO, Chris Durovich, was beginning to have doubts about the center’s impact on the community.
The problem was that, although its patients were getting excellent care once they entered the facility, the health indicators in the community as a whole were getting worse, especially with regard to chronic conditions such as diabetes and asthma. Durovich was determined to fix the problem.
So he brought in Peter Roberts, a longtime healthcare executive, to diagnose the problems in the community and design solutions that would make a positive impact. Over the past four years he, along with the Business Innovation Factory, have been developing an innovative new model that reimagines how the healthcare system works with the communities it serves.
I never considered myself to be a writer and, as a publishing CEO, I tried my best to avoid any creative aspirations I might have had. When management sticks its nose into the creative side of the business it always creates problems. Nevertheless, in 2009, with Ukraine heading down a dark path, I found myself writing essays in LinkedIn groups to draw traffic to my profile.
Much to my surprise, I soon began receiving private messages from people who wanted to let me know how much they liked what I wrote. At first, I thought they were nuts! But the messages kept coming and so I kept writing. A few weeks later, Digital Tonto was born and it turns seven years old this week.
Over the years, the site has built a strong following and I’ve become a regular contributor to Harvard Business Review and Forbes. Last month, I took the next step and signed my first publishing contract for a book that will come out next spring. It’s been a wild ride and a wonderful journey. To celebrate, here are some my favorite posts from the last seven years.
For a long time, marketing was driven by taglines—short, evocative slogans that captured the essence of a brand’s message. Nike encouraged us to “Just Do It,” while Apple inspired us to “Think Different.” Miller Lite simply had to say, “Tastes great, less filling” and product flew off the shelves.
Taglines worked because they cut through the clutter and stood out in a sea of brands vying for our attention. Marketers needed to project images that were compact, but meaningful or risk getting lost in the mix. Yet it is no longer enough to merely grab attention. Marketers now need to hold attention.
Today, when consumers take notice of a brand, they are less likely to run to a store and more likely to jump on the Internet, where their digital activity can be retargeted by competitors. We need to shift from crafting messages to creating experiences. Brands can no longer rely on slogans and jingles, but must learn to tell stories. Here are four rules you need to know:
In 1952, Remington Rand’s UNIVAC computer debuted on CBS to forecast the 1952 election as early results came in. By 8:30, the “electronic brain” was predicting a landslide, with Eisenhower taking 438 electoral votes to Stevenson’s 93. The CBS brass scoffed at the unlikely result, but by the end of the night UNIVAC proved to be uncannily accurate.
It was that night that the era of digital computing truly began and it was a big blow to IBM, the leader in punch card calculators at the time. It’s Research division, however, was already working on more advanced digital technology. In 1964, it launched its System 360 and dominated the industry for the next two decades.
Today, we’ve reached a similar inflection point. Moore’s law, the paradigm which has driven computing for half a century will reach its limits in about five years. And much like back in the 1950’s, IBM has been working on a new quantum computer that may dominate the industry for decades to come. If that sounds unlikely, wait till you hear the ideas behind it.
We think of art as the most human of endeavors, but in recent years we’ve learned that machines can understand creativity too. There are algorithms that evaluate songs and movies for record companies and movie studios. One music professor even created a program that wrote compositions which drew critical acclaim.
Paradoxically, developing algorithms that can create artistic works pushes the bounds of human capability. Unlike machines that, say, dig holes or build cars, algorithms that produce creative work need to understand things that even humans find difficult to articulate. That’s the idea behind Google’s Magenta project, which is developing machine learning tools for art and music
Magenta is built on top of TensorFlow, the library of machine learning tools that the firm recently released as an open source technology, allowing anyone who wants to download the source code. To get a sense of why Google would open up its most advanced work, which is at the heart of its most important products, I asked company executives about it.
I never planned to be a writer. In fact, it was something I actively avoided. As a publishing CEO, I felt it was important to steer clear of the creative process. When business side people start inserting themselves into creative work, it usually leads to trouble. So I focused on supporting other people’s creativity rather than pursuing my own.
But a strange confluence of events led to a blog, which found an audience and led to me becoming a contributor on Forbes and Harvard Business Review. That, in turn, led to an even bigger audience and, more recently, a book deal. So now, I guess I’m a full fledged writer.
I’m one of the last people you’d expect to become a writer. I wasn’t very interested in writing in school and, to be honest, wasn’t particularly good at it when I first started my blog. Yet the truth is that talent is overrated and anyone can learn to be creative over time. So here’s five things that I’ve learned along the way that can help you unlock your own creativity.