Can Robots Help You Build Your Startup?

Who will your startup rely on in 2016 to do all the everyday jobs that keep the business running? Interns? Skilled workers? How about robots?

While you’re no doubt familiar with the concept of robots taking over tasks humans may not particularly want to do (Roomba, anyone?), the idea of robots doing jobs beyond menial work, especially in business, is a more recent concept. But it’s attracted attention lately, as artificial intelligence has become an increasingly real possibility for advanced data analytics — something I talked about in an article here last year.

Robots and artificial intelligence aren’t the same thing, but people often talk about them in the same breath; they’re both, after all, about non-human resources doing work that humans have traditionally handled. I think the difference lies mainly in the fact that not all robots have — or need — intelligence, or the ability to think critically. Rather, they can be programmed to do work that many people are likely to find boring and, well, mindless.

With that distinction in mind, I’ve been thinking about robots lately in the context of the business I’m engaged in: a growing startup with a wide variety of jobs to be done. Obviously, much of the work we do at Umbel isn’t suitable for robots, but if you accept the premise that robots are about handling routine, predictable jobs that don’t require critical thinking skills, I feel confident that they could probably do more kinds of jobs than you might think.

And the good thing about that is if we can automate some of the more tedious, time-consuming tasks, we’ll be freeing up the people who used to do them for more productive and higher-value work — which is good for them and good for our businesses. I think that’s clear in the following possibilities that I’m seeing for jobs that could be done by robots.

1. Sales rep

Let me say first that I’m not talking about selling complex products and services; that takes talent and skill you can’t program into any run-of-the-mill robot. But what about the not-so-complex products? When it comes to high-volume, commodity items that basically do the same thing for the same price, a talent for engaging someone person-to-person isn’t really essential. That’s especially true if you’re selling the items online, as described in this zdnet article on the first 10 jobs to be automated by AI and robots. But even for in-person sales, a robot may be able to do more than one might imagine. For example, Nestle uses a robot known as “Pepper” to sell potential customers coffee machines.

2. Warehouse picker/packer

Amazon was one of the first companies to use robots in fulfillment centers back in 2011. Today, they own the company that built the robots they started using then. Amazon relies on these robots to pick up shelves of products in warehouses and bring them over to employees to pack them into individual boxes for shipping. So the robots don’t do everything associated with fulfillment — at least not yet. New York Times reporter John Markoff wrote a book last year in which he characterized Amazon’s current robots as an “interim solution”on the road to complete automation. Amazon hasn’t confirmed that, but it seems reasonable to me. After all, if a robot can pick, package, count and box plastic components on a factory line, like the Baxter robot from Rethink Robotics, why couldn’t it do the same with products in a warehouse that need to be prepared for shipping? You don’t have to be Amazon to see the value in that.

3. Field service rep

When you’re running a company that’s in an industry typified by field operations — whether your own or your customers’ — one of your biggest costs is in maintaining and repairing equipment in the field. Sending a field service technician out to diagnose and repair a problem is an expensive proposition — unless your field service technician isn’t a technician at all. The field service management company ServiceMax envisions a future — a near future — in which sensors detect problems in the field and robots are dispatched to handle simple adjustments that may be needed, reserving costly human resources for more complex problems.

4. Data entry clerk

Many companies have long depended on offshore outsourcing as a low-cost way to handle routine work such as data entry and IT troubleshooting. But robots offer the even lower costs for these types of tasks — as well as the prospect of better performance, in some cases. CIO magazine reported on one enterprise that reassigned the majority of its server management to a self-managed, integrated, automation system — and reduced troubleshooting time from forty minutes to 40 seconds as a result.

5. Driver

If there’s one thing a startup CEO spends a lot of time doing, it’s going to and from airports and hotels. And now it’s looking like cars that drive themselves will one day compete with drivers for Uber and Lyft — just as those services began to compete with traditional taxis only a few years ago. I’m basing that on a report earlier this year that General Motors and Lyft are forming a partnership. While the agreement will first focus on providing Lyft drivers with access to GM vehicles, it will ultimately be about the two companies working together to develop autonomous cars that Lyft customers could request.

Those aren’t by any means the only jobs that robots could soon be doing; but they’re among the ones most relevant to startups, which have to run pretty lean operations, particularly in their first years. That means constantly looking for ways to keep operating costs down and employee productivity up. I think robots are going to play a big role in helping startups achieve those goals.

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