New technology being introduced into the market to automate historically manual tasks, brings back our sense of fear. Do we want people to complete menial/labor intensive tasks or do we want to create competent/reliable machines to complete these tasks?
These feelings of uncertainty are not new. In the 19th and 20th centuries there were also these concerns. The introduction of the car, electricity, and the telephone caused a lot of uproar.
Many people feared their adoption because it would make human effort less valuable. The base fear was that these technologies would change the very fabric of our culture, our way of life, and the societal norms.
Everything changed during the Industrial Revolution. People found an extra source of energy with an incredible capacity for work, fossil fuels.
What was once a labor intensive, one off, unique creation process was quickly changed when the UK became a world economic powerhouse from 1660 to 1815 and Samuel Slater brought new manufacturing technologies from the UK to the US, founding the first US cotton mill in Beverly, Massachusetts.
The concept that machines would perform the handiwork of a person was expanded to labor intensive, heavy production. With the newfound concept of production and efficiency, businesses looked for ways to standardize the process and remove the inefficiency caused by uniqueness. Standard, repeatable practices were put in place to drive this new engine.
The completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 made the transport of people, raw materials, and products easier and faster. Carnegie, Rockefeller, Bell, and Edison’s inventions were created to reduce the manufacturing cycle. The focus of big business moved to products and services that could be mass produced and marketed to drive growth.
There are times when technologies immediately reshape our culture and there are times when change occurs slowly. The introduction of the modern tinplating (a.k.a. the tin can) in the Middle Ages was not marketed commercially in England until 1730. This helped store the latest foods, but it was not until the process of hermetically sealing in 1809 (France) that canned foods life was extended.
Commercial canning did not start in the US until 1819. Interestingly, however, an efficient can opener was not invented until 1870 some sixty years after the cans introduction.
With preserved canned food, populations would be buffered from the annual bounty/famine that mother natured delivered. With a guaranteed source of food, long distance explorations and deployments could now be embarked upon without having to be distracted by efforts to find food. This single invention, often overlooked, evolved our world in ways few recognize.
An Era of Change
The end of the 19th century experienced a fury of inventions that changed the course of development for decades to come. This period saw more groundbreaking change than any other subsequent period.
How do the changes we are experiencing today match to what they experienced? During this period, civilization moved from relying on living things to get around, to relying on mechanical things. This was all accomplished by a discovery of this unknown force called Static Electricity back in the 1600’s.
Figure 1: The Electricity Revolution
1800 Benjamin Franklin 1759 discovery that lightening is electric, the first battery to store electricity was created. Static electricity, the initial point in understanding electricity, was discovered in 1600 by William Gilbert.
1872 Montgomery Ward begun to distribute a dry goods mail-order catalog to rural customers offering a wide selection of items unavailable to them locally. This "Wish Book" quickly grew to be 240 pages and included over 10,000 items.
1876 Alexander Graham Bell patented (Patent 174,465) "the method of, and apparatus for, transmitting vocal or other sounds telegraphically by causing electrical undulations, similar in form to the vibrations of the air accompanying the said vocal or other sound."
1876 Nikolaus August Otto built the first practical four-stroke cycle internal combustion engine.
1879 Thomas Alva Edison filed a patent (U.S. Patent 0,214,636) application for "Improvement In Electric Lights" an incandescent lamp that lasted 13.5 hours. While, historians list 22 other inventors of incandescent lamps prior to Thomas Edison, the Edison bulb is considered to be the first practical incandescent lamp.
1882 Thomas Alva Edison (Edison Illuminating Company) built and opened the first power station on Manhattan Island, New York, which provided 110 volts direct current to 59 customers in lower Manhattan.
1882 Dr. Schuyler Skaats Wheeler invented the first electrically powered mechanical fan.
1886 Karl Benz patented his first three wheeled internal combustion engine automobile, the Motorwagen. This invention is the predecessor of four wheeled automobiles that were first offered in 1893, Benz and Company.
1888 The Scottish inventor John Boyd Dunlop patented the first practical pneumatic or inflatable tire.
1900 Work began on the New York subway with the first section from City Hall to the Bronx. This project assured citizens of easy travel and a fixed five-cent fare.
1901 Connecticut passed the first automobile speed limit laws (City: 10 MPH, Villages: 15 MPH, and Rural: 20 MPH).
1903 Orville and Wilbur Wright made the first successful man-powered airplane flight on a 750-pound, 10 mph, 12 horsepower gasoline engine plane.
1908 Henry Ford's, Ford Motor Company introduced the Model T costing $850.00 (one-third the cost of any other available car), built for the masses. Within eight years he cuts the cost in less than half.
Things changed significantly in the fabric of American life at the end of the 19th century. It took nearly 90 years for electricity to go from a concept to a commercial necessity. It took the car only 25 years to go from a concept to a commercial necessity and efficient mass production. The introduction of the Model T marked the impact of consumerization into the main stay.
Is the rate of evolution of technology speeding up? Are we being asked to accept the latest developments in terms of a decade versus being given the comfort of decades to accept it?
Hitting closer to home, technology continued to evolve in the 20th century as the leading driver of change turned to micronation of electricity. Whereas the 20th century marked the introduction of life’s conveniences, the 21st century will be marked as the driver of electronic mechanization.
Figure 2: The Mechanization of America
After the revolution of the electrification of America, everyone quickly moved to the mechanization this enabled.
1927 The first aerosol spray can patent was obtained by Rotheim in Oslo, Norway. The first concept of aerosl spray was discussed as early as 1790. The first application was to apply a gas and cream, whipped cream, released in 1939.
1935 DuPont creates the first nylon fabric. It was commercially released in 1938 as a bristled toothbrush. Nylon hose for women were not be released commercially until 1940.
1937 The first jet engine plane is produced. The concept of a jet engine dates back to 150BC.
1939 The first single rotor helicopter scaled with mass production was invented by Igor Sikorsky.
1945 The first computer completing complex activities (ENIAC) above mathematical computation was built.
1945 The first atomic bomb was invented by Dr. Oppenheimer and the team known as the Manhattan Project. This work extended the learnings of German physicist and their discoveries from 1938.
1947 The first mobile phone was invented extending from the 1908 work by German scientists discovering wireless communication.
1947 The bipolar transistor was created making vacuum tubes useless.
1950 Commercial credit cards were introduced, Diners Club Card. This card came from the first bank issued card launched in 1946 by the Charge-It card.
1956 TV Remote “Flashmatic” was introduced by Polley. It was an extension of the Zenith wired remote “Lazy Bones” released in 1950.
1958 Texas Instruments invented in the integrated circuit.
1960 Laser (Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation) was invented by Hughes Laboratory.
1970 The first microprocessor, the 4004, was released by Intel.
1974 The UPC Bar Code was introduced.
1975 Bill Gates and Paul Allen created Microsoft.
1983 Motorola released the first mobile phone which retailed for $4,000.
1983 Microsoft released “Word” (the word processing software).
1985 Microsoft released Microsoft Windows.
1991 The Internet became available for unrestricted commercial use.
1993 Intel introduced the Pentium Microprocessor
1995 The Java Programming Language was released.
1998 Apple Computers revealed the iMac computer.
1998 The search engine Google is founded.
2001 iPod was released.
By the end of this century communication moved from hand/hard copy to electrical communication. We moved from using electricity for basic activities, to a world where communication happened in seconds.
I believe that the factors that drive effective organizational transfer are the same that drive technology transformation. Leading yourself and your teams through the next round of technological evolution will take a keen ability.
- Communication: Teams need to understand the developments and feel empowered to take risks to extend their knowledge.
- Executive Acceptance: Leaders must show interest, value, and appreciation for the new thought.
- Research and Development: Leaders must quickly recognize technology advancements and deploy the best thought leaders to integrate.
Change means things will be different, past technological advancements show it will evolve in ways one can never realize at the time of their release. Advancements spark an evolution of thought that enables all industries to use it to their advantage. Late adopters are often easy identify by those businesses that have struggled to keep pace with their competitors.
Hindsight is histories great equalizer that allows people the ability to look back at the past and connect the dots. Do you believe that Benjamin Franklin on that stormy night when he was flying his kite and staring at the sky could have ever dreamed of a time when his invention, electricity, would be the great force that would enable people to travel in space?
Similarly, do you think one day we will look back at the advent of the artificial intelligence era and thank this generation for taking that step of faith and continuing the pursuit.. If our forefathers had resisted the harnessing of this unknown force called “electricity”, just think how different our life would have been.
Instead of focusing on the risks of a world where a machine can process in ways humans can, we should focus on the next round of advancements that it will lead to. The places it will take us, and the new inventions we may not even be able to conceive until the technology is in place and perfected.
Maybe the next world will require each of us to purchase a delivery vehicle that is capable of getting products from a retailer on our behalf. No longer will humans spend time collecting goods they need, but their artificially guided “taxi” will collect it for them while the human works on more pressing items.
As Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “the only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.” The changes we are experiencing are no greater than we have experienced in the past. History tells us we will define the bounds and acceptable uses for technology to help create a better tomorrow.
Each generation has demonstrated a desire to leave the world better and fuller than the generation before it.
We should not fear the next wave of evolution but embrace it. We should help craft it into the culture of tomorrow.
Like the decades before us who saw us move from the horsed carriage to a horseless carriage (car), and the candle to electricity, and wired connection to wireless connections, technology will evolve to make life easier. Artificial intelligence marks the beginning of the next wave where mechanical devices talk to electronic devices to complete tasks that man does not want to.
Are you ready for change?