Beware The Robot Curve

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If those self-service machines at the supermarket get your goat, then you’re just going to love this post. Recently I attended a conference and was introduced to a concept that was both terrifying, fascinating and, if recent Will Smith films are anything to go by, now slightly anticipated by all.

Now don’t get me wrong, this post isn’t a proclamation that soon we’ll all be flying to work in our hovercrafts while Jeeves 2013 gets the dinner on. This is about the nature of our work sliding down the robot descent and essentially turning us into swiftly replaceable work horses.

If at this point you’re still dreaming of your very own house bot, let me elaborate. The Robot Curve was coined and devised in all its glory by Marty Nuemeier and has four unique points defining the slippery slope to robotic work.

The Slippery Slope

Firstly we start high, mighty and riding the crest of the curve as we engage in ‘Creative work’ defined by original or completely unique, non-routine work. Slipping down a notch we move into ‘Skilled work’, still technically creative, professional work but work that can be passed on and more worryingly ‘codified’.

Then we move on to a level you’re probably familiar with if you’ve ever tried to call student finance, ‘Rote work’ i.e. work that can be outsourced to unskilled workers with limited training. Lastly we reach ‘Robotic Work’, the last step of human imagination as skilled work is taken over by software and machines. It’s cheaper than a living, breathing counterpart too.

Just to put a little context to the Robot descent, late last year, Kevin Kelly penned a piece for Wired in which he claimed that before the end of the century, 70% of today’s professions will be replaced by automation. Basically, just like those professions we’ve seen disappear and evolve in the past, we’ll be forced to adapt.

Remember when grape stomping was the way to create wine? Well now it’s a quaint little past time for curious tourists while the real plonk nicely ferments in a stainless steel, climate-controlled vat. It ain’t pencils and paper cuts that allow our designers to create those rather spectacular graphics either.

Who’s Safe?

Now, if like me you were feeling rather smug at your untouchable job, sorry to burst your bubble. As I spend my days writing, I was of the rather naive opinion that my craft sits above anything that any automated program could do. After all, it takes skill to write a fairly engaging piece and mostly get the spelling right you know.

Then I heard about Narrative Science, a real walking talking program that takes data, applies some fancy voodoo (sophisticated algorithms) and churns out a ‘story’ with the resulting content ‘as good or better than your best analyst’. Yikes. Even medics aren’t above the great takeover with robotic aided surgery now meaning surgeons don’t even have to be in the same operating theatre as the patient.

Now we could go all socio-political and start debating the emergence of a new underclass expelled from their robot-worthy jobs, but this isn’t Question Time, so more relevantly, how can we apply the robot curve to the work of SEOs?

The SEO Pecking Order

At ionSearch, Mike Essex from Koozai (who first alerted me to the Robot Curve) brought up a graph of average SEO earnings. Between the wide gulf of those bringing home the bacon and those unable to bring home the bacon because their electricity’s been switched off, Mike identified one key element of those SEOs gracing the salary top spots.

Not an ability to kiss ass for England as you might think, but that magic ingredient whose name we bear c-r-e-a-t-i-v-i-t-y.

It’s this creativity that determines a worker from a tool pushing drone to an insightful, adaptive professional, and ultimately one ‘drone’ no company can afford to lose. More specifically, Mike focused on the SEO obsession with tools and how this reliance is pushing us uncomfortably into, you’ve guessed it, thinking like robots.

Tools miss errors humans can process and in terms of adaptation, lag way behind. If everyone can move a mouse and bash a tool, then really, what determines us from SEO apes, dragging our knuckles on the floor and working out the best way to get to the payslip?

This isn’t about grabbing a paintbrush or writing a sonnet, many SEOs are naturally ‘technical’ but creative problem-solving away from the temptation and limitations of a plug-in makes for an employee who can apply a nice chunk of nous and stand head and shoulders above the competition.

It’s time to stick two fingers up to the robot curve and use those ‘soft assets’ i.e. our own creativity, intuition and networking power. Or, risk pushing the profession into unskilled, outsourced work and ultimately have your job taken over by R2D2’s great, great grandchild.

  • Written by on 23rd May 2013 at 09:17
  • “Fluid Creativity is an award-winning, multi-service digital agency based in Manchester.”
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