When you imagine the upcoming Age of Robots, you probably see the robots replacing humans in jobs that involve manual labor. An assembly line is a good application for robots, for example.  And I assume fast food workers will soon be replaced by robots too.

But I predict that one of the first occupations that will be entirely replaced by robots will be middle management, not skilled labor. I think it will be a long time before a robot can replace a sales person or a graphic designer. But it won't be long before a computer can do project management and resource allocation better than humans. Compared to most skilled jobs, management is relatively easy. Management only becomes difficult when there are so many simple projects happening at the same time that a human can't keep them all straight. The individual tasks of management are fairly simple. Management only becomes hard when you add a lot of simple steps together until you have a complicated whole.

Computers are great for handling that sort of complexity. Put a computer in a robot body and it can walk from cubicle to cubicle handing out assignments, checking on progress, and adjusting schedules and budgets on the fly. A robot could easily juggle the complexity of dozens of projects. It could be talking to you in your cubicle while simultaneously having a phone call with another employee and texting a third without you even knowing as it happens.

I don't think it will be hard to teach computers the basics of project management. Most of the common steps for a project have a predictable order. For example, you know you need to get bids before buying hardware. You know you need to prep the space before installing the equipment. And you know you don't put the equipment into production until after it has been tested. A robot can easily learn all of the steps in a common project.

Best of all, a robot would be good at estimating the time and resources needed to complete projects. Robots that are involved in project management would share their experiences through the cloud. Eventually Big Data will help the robots determine how long the various stages of the project should take, and the resources that are needed, based on similar projects elsewhere. The robots will be free of human bias and optimism, so I would expect them to do a better job of estimating budgets and timelines than humans. A human manager will tell his boss what the boss wants to hear. A robot will be entirely objective, creating estimates based on similar projects from history. The robot won't fear being fired if he tells the boss the project won't be done before the CEO visits. For the robot, facts are facts.

One of the biggest advantages of a robot manager is that it can be a hard-ass jerk as often as that is called for. A robot might need to single out weak performers and let the rest of the team know who the problem is so peer pressure does its thing. A human couldn't get away with being so confrontational, but a robot has no feelings. It simply identifies inefficient parts of a system and highlights them.  No one would bother wasting an hour of the robot's day crying in its office or complaining about fairness.

My prediction that robots will dominate management before they dominate blue collar jobs is based on The Dilbert Principle which observes that the least skilled employees are promoted to management. You need your most skilled people doing interface design, engineering, and the hard stuff. Management is mostly about optimizing resource allocation, and that is something a robot can learn relatively easily, at least compared to most skilled jobs.

You might wonder if a robot can have enough leadership qualities to be a manager. I would point out that most humans in management have zero leadership skills, so the bar isn't set high. You can see leadership in humans when you start getting to the senior management level.  It might take a hundred years for robots to get C-level jobs. But I think robots will dominate middle management in twenty years.

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0 Rank Up Rank Down
Dec 19, 2012
[correction] Looks like they're already working on this: http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21628945.500-your-next-boss-could-be-a-computer.html
-4 Rank Up Rank Down
Dec 19, 2012
Looks like they're already working on this: http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21628965.000-app-for-quizzing-your-way-to-being-a-mastermind.html
Dec 19, 2012
Robots face some tough hurdles when it comes to breaking through the management "glass ceiling". Sure they can paint a truck frame in 30 sec, but can they tell a good joke at the CEO's charity golf tourney?

I'm saying robots will have to humanize themselves a bit to gain acceptance. They'd be wise to adopt some human hobbies such as ham radio, raising helper monkeys or enriching uranium. Speed chess or restoring old cars on the Moon would also be good.

The first glimmerings of robot acceptance aren't here yet. Are there any robot weathermen yet? Any Episcopal clergy-bots? I know of no Robot Grammy Award show, nor any robotic talk show hosts. We're still waiting for the 1st robot member of Augusta National, and I can't even think of a movie robot that's played the President.

They'll know they've arrived when there's a robot Fox News commentator that continually belittles electricity.

Dec 19, 2012
Wait - Are you telling me that the fast food workers are NOT currently robots???
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Dec 19, 2012
In that case, I better get myself promoted pronto so I can replace my current peers with robots and eliminate the competition.
Dec 19, 2012
I see human tolerance for our workplace environment as a spectrum with soul-crushing slavery at one end, and a complete inability to make oneself work at all at the other. Most of us sit somewhere between 40% and 70% along this spectrum, with a few who gather at the fringes, but in general, no more than 5% of us.

Implementing robot middle managers who drove people too hard would deviate too far from the current 5% - 90% - 5% array, and would cause a rather rapid rebeliion and uprising against the new methodology- whether monkeywrenching or new labor unions, it would get ugly fast. We'd collectively rapidly reject a robot workplace. They'd have to tune the managers to be too much like regular human managers, and that would make them moot.

The PHBs who implemented the robots would be moved to a different department, the project scrapped, and the 10 or so year window where PHBs across the country had jumped on the bandwagon would be looked back upon with amusement by future generations. People would nickname jerk bosses after the defunct robot boss lines.
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Dec 19, 2012
Interesting argument. My only question is, why do you need the physical embodiment of the robot? What part of this management can't be done by phone and email?
Dec 19, 2012
Hi Scott - please consider
1) Humans will supply the input data to the computers
2) Humans will write the algorithms that that program runs
3) Humans will provide the "company-specific" tweaks to the algorithms.

Are humans bright enough to write algorithms for things so complex? (Some are, but will they be the ones working on the SW?) Are humans at the company honest and competent enough to give the computers complete, unbiased data, and to properly 'tweak" the algorithms?

There's a lot of subtle judgment in good project management. Capturing it in machine-processable form is a big AI project, and we know how those often work out (even Ray K ended up having to get a day job :-) )

Dec 19, 2012
Just because many managers lack "leadership skills" and are personality challegened does not mean we should accept that model as standard for robot management.
Rather than continue to lower the bar on management leadership skills, we should consider raising the bar to an appropriate level.
Dec 19, 2012
I can see computers/robots replacing many of the functions of managers but I think we'll still have managers. Why? For the same reason bureaucracies get bloated beyond what you need for an organization to function; human nature. Large organizations tend to function less on the basis of what is efficient than on the pecking order/culture that that organization develops over time so, for this reason, middle managers will still be around even after the machines are developed that could replace them. It surprises me that the maker of Dilbert doesn't realize this.
-2 Rank Up Rank Down
Dec 19, 2012
Oh, !$%* - so we still will be bothered by intruders in our cubicles/other personal space?
Dec 19, 2012
You wouldn't need a physical manifestation of the project manager, so there is no need to make a manager robot. The PM would be virtual - a VPM.

Think of it as Clippy, but with authority.
+6 Rank Up Rank Down
Dec 19, 2012
I think there's a big difference between managers being replaced by robots, and managers using new tools for resource allocation.
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