Robots and our view of humanity

Trendspotting with Kjell Lindström

Kjell Lindström, trendspotter, lecturer, author and founder of the Noden company will gladly discuss robots. For him, the most interesting perspective is in regard to humanity. Because even if it’s impossible to slow the progress of robotic development, our view of mankind is of importance for the future. As it always is and in all circumstances. So let’s talk about it!

Is man simply a replaceable cog in a machine, or a unique, creative sapien that can adapt to any change? And how does the answer to to that question affect our behavior in an automation project?

Kjell Lindström began his professional career in a highly manual way: working a saw in the Skultuna factory just outside Västerås, Sweden. Nowadays he doesn’t do as much physically monotonous work. Instead, he looks for trends in the world around us, analyzes them and tries to understand what they mean for organizations and for the different divisions of the organizations.

Today people wander about in what Kjell calls the “organizational landscape”, a hodgepodge of all the management ideas that have been implemented over the years. The result is a tangled web of the different systems.

Two approaches

People are constantly looking for systems that work; systems that make the things we want to happen actually happen, and that make these things easily repeatable. For this reason, robots seem like an interesting opportunity. – All organization is repetitive and occurs over time. We strive for flow, efficiency and low costs.

Manufacturers want safety and predictability, and robots give you that, Kjell Lindström says.

Kjell has spoken in various contexts about robots, big data and artificial intelligence. While talking about what robots can do today, he likes to discuss what the robot user’s view of humanity means for the future.

– You can say that there are two main approaches. According to the one, human beings are like cogs in a machine, but irrational cogs. Human error is a factor that confounds things so they will never function perfectly. It’s an economistic way of looking at things that makes using robots a logical choice.

According to the other view, human beings are unpredictable, but in a positive way. We are creative and can adapt to any new situation. With this view, robotization is not such a clear choice.

History is reassuring

Does your view of humanity matter in an automation project?

For production managers on one hand, or workers on the other. – We can’t do anything about how things are developing, so my suggestion is that you look at human beings as creative and adaptable creatures. There is historical evidence that  that’s what we are. We had similar concerns when we watched machines take over at the beginning of industrialization. But it didn’t mean we ended up with nothing to do. Our creativity and entrepreneurial spirit kicked in.

But we are also unpredictable. Things never turn out as planned

Most innovations are implemented more slowly than you would think. There are three phenomena to take into account, according to Kjell Lindstrom. – No new idea changes absolutely everything. Firstly, there’s inertia within the organization. We know that the current system works. It’s how we’ve always done things, so we hesitate.

Secondly, all technological developments have unanticipated effects, such as an increased use of paper when we thought we were on our way towards the paperless office.

And finally there are “perverse effects”, which describes what happens when we want something so intensely that the effect is contrary to what we originally wanted

Kjell explains the perverse effect as the result of an overly energetic courtship of someone you’re in love with instead of being liked, you get scorned for your persistance.

It’s never what you Think

The conclusion is that new things are certainly on their way, but not as we imagine them and not as quickly as we Think.

But what about artificial intelligence? What is it, and should we be worried that computers will soon be smarter than human beings?

– Richard Dawkins warns us that we can’t predict what will happen if robots become smarter than we are. If a robot is too similar to a human, things get uncomfortable.

But when will they surpass us?

Kjell explains:

– Artificial intelligence is when a robot can loop knowledge and learn more on its own, which is something that has always been man’s special talent.

The first level is called single-loop learning, which is what the robot in a Svia cell does when it holds a component in front of the camera and adjusts its position using Svia’s vision system PickMT.

Double-loop is the next step, when the robot learns from its mistakes. It has its own learning system which builds up a bank of knowledge.

The third level – deutero  – is the scary one. Then the robot knows how it learns new things. It has a level of consciousness, but can get even better at learning things than we can. It threatens our self-image.


Inside or outside

Reality is complex. There are no simple solutions, or at least not very often. – For example, unemployment problems in the United States can’t be solved by bringing home production from low-wage countries and putting American workers on the job. Unskilled tasks will still be performed by robots.

Kjell tells of a fully automated high-bay warehouse where the only person present was a security guard with a dog. The dog’s job was to bite the guard if he touched something he shouldn’t.

So what are people going to do all day in the robotic reality of the future?

– Research indicates that about 25 percent of us are entrepreneurs of our own free will. We are therefore happy entrepreneurs; we’re living our dream. But another 25 percent will become sad entrepreneurs, forced into self-employment against their will because contractors don’t want to employ people, just pay them for their services.

A further 30 percent of us will have some form of employment, and the remaining 20 percent will be marginalized.

Information means responsibility

But now we’ve strayed too far away from how shop floors are currently converting from manual to automated production, and what humanity has to do with it. Kjell Lindström’s advice is to provide operators with knowledge, because information gives people opportunities for responsibility and commitment.

Martin Fredriksson at Svia says that’s how businesses that succeed with automating work.

– They get the operators involved early in the process and ensure that information gets to where it’s most needed: with the people who make sure everything works. Almost everyone  is more inspired by their new responsibilities as operators.

– Lots of technology is about information that today’s management can’t control anyway, Kjell Lindström fills in.

Anyone has the right to it, which means that organization is the same as information and that organization and production are not leading separate lives any longer. Everything is intertwined.

We have not yet said a word about the impact of 3D printers on future production. But it might not even be necessary. Things never turn out how you think.

Kjell LindströmKjell bröstbild

A trendspotter, speaker and author. His special interest is management.

Kjell has been self-employed since 1995, when he started the Noden AB company and the trendspotting newsletter Noden Trends, which is Sweden’s most widespread with more than 30 000 subscribers.

Tips for further reading and films:

Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences by Edward Tenner. Vintage.

Reasons and Rationalization Intentions: The Limits to Organizational Knowledge by Chris Argyris. Oxford University Press.

• The Terminator movies. Kjell recommends the second film.


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