The Platypus Diaries 2: We haven’t been replaced by robots yet


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One thing that puzzles me in the world is the desire of many to be more excited by what technology could do to emulate people than about people themselves.  Why are Asset Management conferences packed with papers about data, and usually silent about what human beings bring to decision-making?

Even those who should know better (because they have been there) talk about ‘data-driven’ processes; and organisations pour far more money into dumb databases than getting a better understanding of their assets.

I suspect this is partly the fetish for capital over on-going costs – and, frankly, ideological faith that it’s better to invest in ‘innovation’ than labour costs. Anything that promises to cut staff is good, no matter how much it costs to try to replace them.

Now, I am a big sci-fi fan, which generally accepts the forward march of technology. But then again, it also warns about how it can wrong, at least in the stories I read. I am not at all sure replacing people with robots benefits anyone, and not the 99% of us that don’t control how automation is used. I am not especially optimistic.

However, there is one thing I am pretty certain about, even in embracing uncertainty about the future: no-one really has any clue about how we can replace experience in managing physical assets.

I remember when I first noticed that investment in things like work management systems, or even more basic computerised processes, could lose sight of how things really work. Big IT in the 1990s in asset-world was sold as replacing some administration costs – mostly part time, middle aged women, who cost almost nothing as they were paid very little, who managed the monthly reporting, knew where the data was, what it meant to asset decision makers, and what to do with it.  And the local nerds who programmed in Fortran in their spare time, and wrote routines for their next door colleagues to do any analysis or maths required.

At least we might try to learn the lessons from the history of IT: where did it work, and why?

Which, to me, includes the question of how to think of technology as a tool to assist skilled people. Why would even want to see ourselves replaced?

2 Thoughts on “The Platypus Diaries 2: We haven’t been replaced by robots yet

  1. Jeff Roorda on July 23, 2021 at 11:35 pm said:

    Great post. Asset management decisions are tradeoffs involving people, values, culture and what is right for us and future generations. There is no computer algorithm for that.

  2. Lou C on July 24, 2021 at 4:48 am said:

    Excellent point and one I think the U.S. Federal Transit Administration picked up on. In the final rule the FTA references “decision support tools”, not decision-making tools.

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