Photo by Bob O'Connor.
I expected my summer engineering internship to include things like updating old 3-D models, creating part designs, and learning the ins and outs of how a company works. I didn’t expect it to involve learning to make my colleagues obsolete.
It was the summer after my sophomore year of college, at a company in Southern California. At the beginning of the internship, my manager asked me to implement 3-D printing to streamline a complicated mold-making process. I have long been obsessed with 3-D printing (I own two machines myself), so I was thrilled to introduce it into the business.
First I had to look at how the company currently made molds. So I sought out the man who did it. (We agreed not use his real name, so I’ll call him Gary.) He was the only one who knew about the costs, the dimensions, and why these molds were made the way they were. The project wouldn’t work without him.
As he described the process and his role in it, I realized that making molds was Gary’s sole responsibility. He had spent over 30 years perfecting these tools and parts. If my project succeeded, I would be making him redundant.
At first he was friendly and eager to talk. But as I explained the goals of my project, his tone changed. He was still willing to talk, though, after venting a bit about our bosses and the company.
Throughout my internship, we built a sort of … relationship. I asked questions; he provided information. The conversations involved a lot of me smiling and nodding and acting as a sounding board. I seemed like one of the few people who cared about what he had to say. Since we both knew that my project could cost him his livelihood, I felt I at least owed him that attention.
Each time we spoke, I was closer to making a working product—and more nervous about telling him how things were going. I felt that by doing so, I was letting him know how close he was to losing his job. A few times I suggested he retrain to learn how to operate the 3-D printer. That seemed far-fetched to him. He didn’t think the company would be willing to invest in a worker his age.
I had built a workable prototype by the end of the summer. To show off my progress, I arranged a demo for my bosses, and I invited Gary. The higher-ups praised my creation and openly appreciated the money it would potentially save. But it felt ominous to flaunt my work in front of the guy whose job it threatened. I was proud of what I had made, but I knew what the repercussions could be if they decided to use it.
I left that internship without knowing the outcome. At the time I was happy to embrace the ignorance. I left the moral quandaries about the consequences of technological innovation to the execs.
But I still wondered what had happened to Gary. Earlier this year, I contacted him to finally find out.
The company had used my project. It was improved until it was ready to hit the factory floor. When it did, Gary was assigned to a new area. However, he was unhappy in his new role and with the business in general. He retired—after 34 years with the company.
Essentially, although he wasn’t laid off, he lost his job as a result of my work.
In society’s narrative of the war between robots and humans, I’m probably the bad guy. But human vs. robot isn’t always good vs. evil. Automation creates new roles for people. Humans will be the ones to install and create our new robotic coworkers. According to the International Federation of Robotics, the average proportion of robots to workers worldwide is 74 to 10,000, and this number is rising. The robotic workforce grew by 9 percent in Asia in 2017, with 631 robots per 10,000 employees in South Korea. Yet by 2030, according to predictions from McKinsey, technology spending alone will create 20 million to 50 million new jobs, some of which will introduce tech and tools like those robots to workplaces.
If you, too, are a job automator, or will be someday, here’s my advice: talk to the people whose jobs you are automating. It’s going to be uncomfortable, but they probably want to tell you their point of view. Dismissing them can reinforce the us-against-them mind-set and create opportunities for miscommunication. When I talked to Gary for this story, he told me the company had taken “a very aggressive stance with [him] and some other employees in similar positions” after I left. “I assumed, wrongly, that I would have an opportunity to follow along with the evolution of the process,” he said.
While I did eliminate Gary’s role, my 3-D printer created opportunities at the company for workers who knew how to run the new machines. Gary said that was one of his biggest takeaways: “I learned that you cannot allow yourself to get complacent. You must stay current with new processes and technology even if it means doing it on your own time and at your own expense.”
Connecting with him again was a cathartic but strange experience. Gary said he was surprised—pleasantly!—to hear from me. He moved states and is working in customer service now. I asked him what his initial reaction was when I approached him about the project all those years ago. “I was excited to find that somebody was willing to discuss what was happening,” he said. “The ‘official position’ of the company was that there was no attempt to change anything about how things were being done.”
Communication might not be enjoyable for either party, but it is necessary. People are a crucial part of the automation process. The robots won’t take over without us.
Erin Winick is MIT Technology Review’s space reporter.
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