The Robots are coming! Procurement needs to get robot savvy before they get us

I Robot was one of my favourite books, back in my teenage years when I devoured the entire science fiction section of the Houghton-le-Spring public library during my 14th and 15th yearsIsaac Asimov, the author, came up with the famous 3 laws of robotics, still quoted today by both serious researchers and sci-fi fans alike.

We’ve also seen the development of robots in manufacturing, to the point where we’re no longer surprised or even particularly interested to see them used in automotive and many other factory environments. But the latest developments are bringing a different angle to the march of the robots. Increasingly, ‘robots’ are being used to replace or supplement human endeavour in areas that were previously seen much more as white collar jobs and activities.

Jamie Liddell, the editor of Outsource magazine, has picked up on this theme strongly in the most recent editions of the magazine. For instance, Paul Morrison of advisory firm Alsbridge said this in the Winter edition of the magazine:

One view sees robotic automation as so massive and far-reaching that it spells the end of outsourcing and offshoring – there will be no need to shift work to low-cost locations or specialist suppliers if you don’t need workers. At the other end of the spectrum, others argue that robotisation is simply a smart marketing label for just the latest, incremental form of automation, and that the world of outsourcing will carry on as usual... Lean, adaptive, rules-based software promises automation that previously simply couldn’t be done, in far quicker timeframes. The clincher is that companies are already using robotisation successfully and at scale, with the list of case studies in banking, telecoms and other sectors lengthening rapidly.”

I’m not sure what the boundaries are between robotics, process automation and artificial intelligence-driven computer systems, to be honest.  But there seem to be two immediate issues here for procurement.

The first is that procurement experts advising organisations on general business process outsourcing issues need to be aware of these developments, and understand what the development of robotics  might mean to how we define requirements, to the universe of prospective suppliers and to contractual matters generally. Is that change in the attractiveness of offshoring really coming soon, as Morrison suggests? I won’t pretend to have thought fully about all these issues as yet, but they’re clearly going to be important if this is a significant trend.

Secondly, are there any aspects of procurement work, either those that are currently outsourced (to other humans) by some organisations, or indeed areas that generally are still in house, that are going to be more attractive outsourcing options under the Rule of the Robots?  Robotic category management? Perhaps not, but what about category research or spend analysis? Something else for us to be aware of, as the technology will no doubt develop further at its usual rapid pace.

Personally, I think I’ll go for the robotic car-washer as my priority  ...

Voices (4)

  1. Mark Lainchbury:

    SkyNet maybe sooner than you think., if Moore’s Law, stays consistant

    http://www.ehi.co.uk/insight/analysis/1280/power-to-the-people:-on-double-trouble

  2. Dan:

    How long until SkyNet takes over?

  3. Nic Martin:

    Interesting article. In addition to the work IBM are doing with Watson, Google are also making some big investments into Robots, both the physical kind and the Artificial Intelligence kind. Their Director of Engineering, Ray Kurzweil is a long-time advocate of machine learning (as well as collaborating with Stevie Wonder on the first synthesizer that successfully emulated a grand piano!).

    There are definitely some interesting times ahead, but I think that the ‘human element’ will remain important. I am optimistic, and note that a lot of people will still pay a premium to have their car washed by a team of humans rather than a robotic car-washer.

  4. dan2:

    IBM and its venture into Cognitive Computing via it’s Watson platform is quite interesting (claiming to invest $1bn over next few years incl 1/3rd of IBM research): https://www.gartner.com/doc/2649915/ibm-bets-new-watson-unit

    It’s a pretty interesting tool, especially watching it beat human’s on Jeopardy (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=smSvr4dfmPk) Fast forward to 5:12 for it to start playing. That was back in 2011, so things have moved on since then.

    The application in CatMan would be the supply/market research. Rather than google keyword searches, the tool can be fed with multiple sources of data (far more than any Category Manager could hope to read) that the tool could then intelligently search for you.

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