CEO of automation company ABB says we shouldn’t fear automation

Here’s a surprise: at our Disrupt Berlin event, Ulrich Spiesshofer, the CEO of 125-year old automation giant ABB, argued that automation is nothing to fear.

“I think we need to take this fear extremely seriously and get people out of this fear,” he said. In his view, automation and robotics has allowed millions of people to move beyond the extreme poverty line and it’s the countries that embraced automation — including the likes of China and India — that are doing much better than some of their counterparts that have resisted automation.

“Technology can be really good if you play it right,” Spiesshofer noted. “The truth is that the countries with the highest robot density — South Korea, Germany, Japan — have the lowest unemployment rates.” If people are afraid, Spiesshofer seemed to say, that’s because they don’t know the facts. ABB itself, he said, now has more employees who are robot engineers than it ever had casting mechanics.

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This isn’t an easy path, though. Spiesshofer noted that we need a lifelong education ecosystem that enables intergenerational education. And companies like ABB need to embrace this and allow their employees to learn new skills. Ideally, the secondary benefit of doing that is increased morale and employee loyalty.

Looking ahead, though, isn’t the end-state artificial intelligence and a future where robots don’t need to collaborate with humans? Spiesshofer believes AI is all about augmenting human potential (a view he has in common with the likes of Satya Nadella). AI will only make humans more productive, and in the end, you’ll still need engineers who understand how these machines function.

It doesn’t come as a surprise that the CEO of ABB believes that automation will have a positive impact. Still, Spiesshofer clearly argues that this won’t be an easy path for everybody. You won’t be able to just do one job for the rest of your life, after all. You will have to learn new skills and ideally, you’ll learn how to program the robots that will then help you do your job. Good luck, humans.