Recently I was reading a great post by David Siminoff, Founder of Shmoop, about An analysis of robot vs. human labor. David laid out a great analysis of “the war” between humans and robots, and the rational financial analysis for deploying the marginal robot instead of the marginal human.
While one interpretation of David’s argument is a financial analysis of a dystopian future (cue Terminator music), I for one welcome our new robot overlords — but I don’t expect them to completely take over all of our jobs.
One oversight to the formulaic view of the question of man vs. machine is that it assumes the output product is the same across man-produced and machine-produced goods and services. If the output is exactly the same then a simple economic comparison of the marginal cost of the human vs. the marginal cost of the machine makes sense. Yet I would argue that there are many cases when the produced output varies, either the product itself or the manner in which we receive or consume it. These differences need to be considered in the overall equation. If the output isn’t constant, the equation breaks down and the comparison of Robot vs. Human becomes more complex.
It is in this differentiation on output where I see a lot of the equations still tipping the scale towards human. As a consumer, I don’t care if an ATM or a bank teller hands me a stack of $20 dollar bills for a night out on the town; however, not all areas of my life are subject to such service commoditization. David gives a great breakdown of the manpower and machine power required for McDonald’s to make McFlurries with the best possible, lowest costing input combination. He is right that a consumer receives the same ice-cream output given the input of robot or man, but I’d argue lots of the products I buy or services I consume, are very different if a human instead of a machine delivers it.
Take that same example of food preparation. Many restaurants are able to produce a great meal, but some restaurants are able to stand out for how they deliver it to you. One of my favorite restaurants in the Bay Area happens to be located in my hometown of Redwood City. Vesta is a great gourmet pizza and small plate restaurant in the heart of downtown. While the chefs do an amazing job of preparing wonderful dishes that my wife and I love, Vesta truly stands out in my book for the experience of how the food reaches my table. The service at Vesta has always been above reproach in my experience. The wait staff works as a team, seamlessly delivering outstanding service and ensuring my dinner delivers not just a great food, but also an experience from which I derive joy.
Even if I were to decide that all pizza was the same (New Yorkers stand over there, while Chicagoans line up on that side), the human touch of how I receive the food is one place where robots will likely never be able to match humans. A human’s ability to interact and react to the customer is nearly impossible to replicate. I’ve worked for many years in the marketing technology field, and in that time I’ve seen lots of innovations in the space that look to technology to solve every marketing problem. Yet I feel this one-size fits all approach is short sighted and ignores many of the marketing problems which algorithms and machines are not very capable of solving.
The creative aspect of digital marketing is the primary place where humans still rule over robots and algorithms. Despite being supported by a wide array of new technologies and solutions, great creative development is still largely a matter of putting virtual pen to paper to create. This has been both a blessing and a curse. Humans are very good about crafting creative that engages at an emotional level. Yet, humans do not scale well. The drive for marketing to become increasingly personalized and contextual has left us with an imbalance between the need for great creative and our ability to deliver the volumes of creative required to be relevant.
Some of the more interesting opportunities in the marketing technology stack are businesses using technology to supplement humans rather than to replace them. Technology is great at helping us understand what worked in the past or in monitoring what is happening in the present. Where it lacks luster is in predicting what people will respond to in the future or crafting emotional connections with individuals.
One day I expect my pizza may be quantified into a simple 1s and 0s heuristic extruded from the Jetson’s-esque food printer sitting on a counter someplace. Perhaps there will be deep-dish vs. New York programs to print the best pie for what I am craving that day. Yet I know that I’ll still seek out the great restaurants like Vesta that have the creativity to innovate within fine dining, putting things like honey, truffle oil or a farm egg on my meal, while at the same time creating a wonderful dining experience through outstanding service. I welcome the robots but look to the humans to work with them to make my life better.
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