Isaac Asimov was among the first to ponder the implications of robotics. In his “I, Robot” collection of science fiction stories, he debates the theme of humans, robots and morality. Asimov wonders how humans would interact with robots, how robots would be treated and why using robots merely as tools could or could not be moral.
The term “robot” was first coined by czech author Karel Čapek, in one of his plays. His “robots” were merely simplified human beings, capable of work but not capable of thoughts or able to express emotions. They did not care for self-preservation and were used for only the most menial of jobs. The absolutely brilliant but rarely quoted play that coined the term “robots” is called “R.U.R.” (Rossum’s Universal Robots) and it’s a must read.
In this play, the robots eventually rebel against human beings, kill them all and eventually restart the cycle of evolution as replacements for humans.
As interesting as both works are, they miss an important part in the trans-humanist evolution – the point where machines and humans have to coexist in symbiosis. While you’re picturing these machines we will once have to coexist with, you should drop the anthropomorphic image. The robots don’t necessarily have to have two legs, two hands and do our simple jobs in the way we would do it.
Picture them as a combination of hardware and software that creates abstract versions of us. Picture screens and buttons. Picture programs and applications.
Picture the mechanical hands that wield automobiles together and the software that controls it.
Picture planes with all their mechanics and the software that manages most of the jobs the pilot doesn’t have to.
Picture automated trading systems that move trillions in capital across the globe each day.
Picture systems that handle most companies’ management.
The fact is that although we have (probably) not yet built Artificial Intelligence, we have built the machine to host it. Still, our lives are not those envisioned by Asimov or Capek. Not completely. Yes, we do manufacture more. Yes, we do work less to produce it. Our lives, however, are not easier. The robots don’t serve humanity. The robots serve a tiny fraction of us humans and technology has not made life far better.
Wealth disparity has increased and it will continue to do so. Technology is unaffordable for most.
Time seems to move faster but this is only because we are now competing against faster and faster machines. Each job is getting transformed. The jobs that were here yesterday are now programmed and sent to automated workers, software or hardware machines that request little pay and offer increased returns.
If you believe your job is safe, you are wrong. The great change the industrial revolution has brought to the world is the assembly line. This assembly line works just as good when building cars or selling banking services. Each uncreative job is but a small piece in a very large mechanism. Ultimately, everything gets abstracted, simplified and robotized.
Industry after industry has fallen victim to the automata. The media, construction, automotive, telecommunications, manufacturing and of course commerce. All have something in common. They need to get better, more productive, yield more results but humans, we are not scalable.
This will continue to go on. We have first built the steam engine, then the assembly line, then electrical and pneumatic robots, then computers, software and eventually the Internet to tie it all together. Each time a new technology comes – it is widely accepted. We live better for a few years and then we need something else as it is never enough.
Now it is time for the robots to take our jobs and mark my words – they will take them.
Do we really need jobs? Is mankind’s purpose to place all its individuals in small cubicles or large factories? After all, these robots that are taking our jobs, they are here to solve problems. The are here for a life of drudgery and they do not care about that. The word “robot” comes from the czech term “robota” – hard work. And hard work they do.
Taking away our hard labor we are left with nothing but the choice to be what we were meant to be – creators, explorers and artists.
But to do this, humanity has to change its ways. It has to lay away the habit of humans enslaving other humans. The disparity in wealth and increased tension in the world stands as proof that some change is about to happen. This change can mean awful things and in our history it always has.
But it can also mean that we could now make free men of all of us, discover the skies and let our spirit roam throughout the stars. Meanwhile – let the robots have our jobs.
A very select group of companies lead the way when it comes to omnichannel retail solutions. Intershop is one of these companies. Having unveiled its first online shop in 1994, it’s also one of the most experienced and innovative. Now more than 500 mid-sized and large companies benefit from its solutions. Among these you can find Hewlett-Packard, BMW, Bosch, Otto, Deutsche Telekom, and Mexx.
We’ve reached out to mr. Jochen Wiechen, Intershop’s CTO, for a few thoughts on the future of retail. Previously a VP of ERP powerhouse SAP, mr. Wiechen holds a PhD in Physics and has a very interesting view on the future of retail.
Netonomy.NET: What are the biggest changes in retail you have noticed in the past 5 years?
Jochen Wiechen: Clearly online is the main disruptive technology that has fundamentally reshaped the entire industry, not only retail by the way. Ubiquitous bandwidth availability, multi-media developments and mobile technologies allow for completely new business models and customer experiences.
The customer journey nowadays starts in the Internet, around the clock and everywhere. Sophisticated online marketing activities trigger more and more personalized buying processes that start with extensive research and lead to process innovations such as click and reserve or collect.
Rising online stars such as Amazon, Zalando and Alibaba grow extremely fast and challenge classical retailers who simply cannot ignore these developments and start embracing those concepts by embodying online into their cross-channel concepts. The winners in this game will be the ones who understand the changing customer profiles and associated behaviors as well as the potential of integrating online into an optimized omni-channel system instead of shying away and sticking to the old offline world.
N.: Which retailers do you believe are leading the change in global retail?
J.W.: Out of the blue Amazon has developed to the leading global online pure play as well as a relevant player in the retail industry. By consequently embracing the online concept into their channel strategy Walmart is currently showing an even faster growth rate of their online channel than Amazon and is a perfect example of a winner in the overall online transformation. Other relevant players in this game are Nordstrom, John Lewis or House of Fraser, for example.
N.:Do you expect Chinese retailers to increase their market share globally? Do you believe Alibaba Group’s expected IPO in the US is a step in that direction?
J.W.: Alibaba is projected to pass by Walmart in overall sales this year, the latter being the largest retailer worldwide. In the US alone, Alibaba is expected to grow 30% this year and although its development in Europe is still in its infancy, also here surprises will have to be expected.
N.:How important is technology in addressing the consumer needs now and in the future?
J.W.:As stated above, nowadays most customers start their journeys in the Internet which is a profound change compared to classical retail. Already at this stage they are able to browse for any categories and products from anywhere at any time with any device, to compare prices, select within huge collections, take advantage of intelligent recommendations and potentially use fitting engines before they buy either online or in the store where they might collect the selected product.
In order to provide large target groups with these services a highly complex, highly scalable, and highly available IT-infrastructure is a prerequisite. Viewed from the other way around, technology is simply key in the paradigm shift that is currently taking place in the retail industry.
“[…]technology is simply key in the paradigm shift that is currently taking place in the retail industry.”
N.:Which technologies do you believe are shaping the future of retail?
J.W.:Based on the speed of the disruptiveness that the combination of high Internet bandwidth availability and the development of multi-media capabilities on a plethora of end-user devices has caused in the retail industry it is expected that the evolution of further technologies will continue to reshape the industry.
While Big Data has already gained substantial market share in order to analyze and predict consumer behavior we also see a rapidly growing demand for indoor proximity systems in order to support omni-channel transformations. In general, we agree with analysts that the Internet of Things is the next big thing in not only this industry. Devices, gadgets and sensors of all sorts interact amongst each other as well as with human beings in order to reach a new level of communications and interactions. The winners in the upcoming retail industry battle will be the ones who take advantage of this technology development that will lead to today possibly unimaginable customer journey innovations.
N.:How will mobile devices impact retailers and shape consumer behavior?
J.W.:On the one hand, mobile devices allow for ubiquitous browsing and shopping which removes any local stickiness of the consumer, who can even choose the best offer while walking through a mall. Recent search engine analytics reveal astonishing portions of regional references in search requests.
On the other hand, this is an opportunity for retailers thereby taking advantage of location-based services by sending ads or promotions to consumers walking by a store, in which a sales person might then use a mobile shop assistant app in order to lure the customer into a well-educated sales pitch that is not only consisting of more or less good guesses based on gut feelings or superficial conversations that help shying away the customer.
N.:Will 3D printing technologies be used in improving tomorrow’s supply chain?
J.W.:While the usage of the technology on the consumer side is still in its infancy, Amazon just recently already opened a shop for products coming out of 3D printers and has again proven its leading role in the industry. It is hard to say how far the technology will be able to be pushed in terms of product complexity which then will determine the extent to which it will be used in supply chains.
N.:What are the next steps in Intershop’s evolution, in terms of innovation?
J.W.:Based on a research project we have been carrying out together with local Universities we are currently rolling out a commerce simulation engine (SIMCOMMERCE) that falls into the category Predictive Analytics and that allows for outstanding optimization capabilities for commerce operators.
Apart from that, we are closely working together with our customers and partners to explore various process innovations by integrating new technologies, devices and gadgets with our platform. With our SEED initiative, with which we scan the market for commerce-relevant leading edge technologies that we can incorporate into our offering we are looking for ways to help our customers to substantially improve their traffic, conversion rates as well as sales and delivery processes. We agree with leading analysts that the Internet of Things will play a dominant role in those developments.
We live in a society organized on the principles of scarcity as driver for profit and social recognition. Our free market system works on a pretty simple principle: people exchange goods with each other with the help of a monetary system. As a result the ones that are better at playing this game get more social recognition, live longer, better and attract better mates.
Open markets vs Centralized planning.
Capitalism vs. Communism
The last hundred years proved that the open market is a better response to people’s needs and wants than the communist economic theory. Communism failed to deliver the results it promised. Centralized economic planning eventually lead to mass social movements, frustration and eventual destruction of communist regimes. The communist governments were parasitic in essence, planned the economic development and backed their decisions through military force.
There are still some communist states at the moment and the highest profile is clearly China. With a booming economy one might wonder what did China do and other communist states (such as the former Soviet Union) did not. First of all, given time, the Chinese regime will have to change its approach to governance. It already started doing so. Right now China is not as communist as we expect it to be. Collective ownership and central planning are rarely found in China’s economy as every business is at least partly private.
Although there is still just a single party, the almighty Communist Party, the economy is a mixture between capitalism and communism, with very few Marxist methods. Local leaders are evaluated based on economic growth indicators and are encouraged to find innovative ways of fostering growth.
Therefore – the one communist regime that did make it is not that communist to start with. Basically the Chinese government managed to reach a smooth transition to capitalism.
We can see that capitalism was a better bet than communism but is there something better than capitalism? I believe so and we can see this in a very old type of economy that resurfaced in the Internet Age: the gift economy.
The gift economy
Think about the the post you are reading right now – you are getting information that was distributed freely. It is hosted on a free blogging platform, developed as open-source software, based on an open-source programming language, having data stored in an open source database. This is an example of how “free” and “open” can happen. You are able to read this because I wanted to share this information with others, some people thought of the idea of hosting blogs for free, some other people contributed freely to the blogging software and some other people developed the tools to make this happen. Asking nothing more in return than gratitude and recognition.
“I can’t buy food with gratitude and recognition”. Of course you can’t but you gratitude and recognition mean prestige and prestige is a very good way to land a good job or deal.
Have a look at what some of the best developers in the world are doing: they write free software, they get recognition, they get people using their free services and then get founded by venture capitalists to expand their software into large companies. Take Facebook for example: it charges nothing, its prototype was built and distributed freely by Mark Zuckerberg. In time the social network made Mark very rich and it all started with a gift he offered to the world.
If you think about it, what we call wealth is basically a recognition of our contribution to the world. We provide a service or product, the price people agree to pay for this is just quantified recognition. That’s basically the whole basis for our current economy.
If we were to take out the monetary system we would basically have a gift economy that would cycle through groups of individuals.
Why did the internet develop a gift economy?
I believe the Internet is not just a technology. It is a world in itself. It has its own rules, its own citizens, its own localized governing groups (highly influential internet users that can provide leadership for their friends or fans). It must develop its own economy. As this economy does not (yet) have a specific largely spread monetary system (we still use offline payment methods) we needed to find a way to address this issue.
Gifts are the solution and intellectual property is exactly the kind of product we can offer without losing anything and at the same time gaining prestige and recognition. Best selling writer Paulo Coelho was talking about piracy and the S.O.P.A. (Stop Online Piracy Act) in some terms we would not expect from someone that makes a living (actually a fortune) from selling his books:
As an author, I should be defending ‘intellectual property’, but I’m not.
Pirates of the world, unite and pirate everything I’ve ever written!
The good old days, when each idea had an owner, are gone forever.
First, because all anyone ever does is recycle the same four themes: a love story between two people, a love triangle, the struggle for power, and the story of a journey.
Second, because all writers want what they write to be read, whether in a newspaper, blog, pamphlet, or on a wall.
If we think about it his actions are actually very sound in terms of business: he wouldn’t sell anything unless people would know about his work. The more people know about his work, the more prone to buying they are. Behavior economics principles state that we care about other people think and we are prone to do the right thing. We know about the writer as we have read his books online. So did our friends. We know that he should get some kind of financial incentive for the work he put into writing the books. The easiest way to do that is to buy the books.
As a result Paolo Coelho, a writer that somehow pirates his own books, has sold more than 100 million books. “This has nothing to do with giving away your work for free” you might think. Yes it does. Uploading a free Russian translation of his book “The Alchemist” resulted in an increase in book sales from 1000 to 1 000 000 books per year.
Piracy and Gift Economy
Piracy is an issue of great debate this days. Supposedly this form of information sharing is harming the media industry. I guess piracy plays its part. However, piracy is the cause AND effect of increasing knowledge, curiosity and need to access information.
42 % of world income is distributed among the first 10% of world’s richest people
1 % of world income goes to the poorest 10%
half the world’s population lives with under 2 $ per day
20% of the population consumes 86% of world’s goods
Those numbers are astonishing and poverty is not going to go away unless we do something about it. Foreign aids do not help as corruption seems to go hand in hand with poverty. State loans don’t help either as the poorest countries seem to be the ones most prone to impose the repayment of loans to their already impoverished citizens. Humanitarian donations and philanthropic concerts performed by Bono don’t work either as they usually help the ones that need it less: the rich and powerful.
There is however something that does work: education. Studies showed that education is very effective in fighting poverty. Educated individuals improve their own life quality and help economic development.
Empowered, informed, educated
Empowered, informed, educated should be the three words on any agenda that addresses poverty issues. With the proper infrastructure anyone in the world can have access to information that can make the difference between famine and prosperity.
The gift economy can help those in need more than money can. Right now the motivated individual can find all kinds of information online regarding all sorts of topics from survival techniques to quantum physics and advanced health courses.
Internet is already helping lives. The information should be free if we are serious about addressing world issues. Piracy helps. Software companies are outsourcing their IT departments to countries like India thus lowering costs. Fun fact: piracy rate in India is 64%. Do you see a correlation there? I do. Those people needed to learn and increase their revenue before they could pay for software. If they would not have had access to software and information they would have never had the kind of skills that allows India to have the economic growth it has (see chart).
Looking at numbers and charts we cannot fully understand the impact gift economy and information sharing has had on countries like India. But think about the numbers of lives that were saved, the millions of people that could afford to eat each day and the impact this has on the future to better understand the bigger picture.
Gift economy is changing the world
Many people are worried about the impact gift economy has, the way information sharing is changing the world. That’s why we are seeing more and more talks regarding things like SOPA, ACTA or other intellectual property management acts. The media is changing, software is changing, access to information is changing and that means less money for those in control right now. It also means a better future, a future where everyone actually stands a chance at living a decent life.
There are 7 billion people in the world right now and the numbers are growing fast. Relying on centralized organizations to improve life is not the way to go. The individuals need to be empowered, informed and educated if we are to survive the next millennium. The gift economy is still in its youth but things are moving fast in the age of Internet. Ideas spread fast and the gift economy is the kind of idea that changes civilizations. As Voltairesaid:
“An invasion of armies can be resisted, but not an idea whose time has come.”