man with wraparound shades on
PHOTO: Alex Iby

You are about to lose your job to a robot.

But that’s OK. You’ll be fine if you just stop and think — specifically, think like a futurist.

The way we change the future is to change the story we tell ourselves about the world we live in. Studebaker was a carriage maker until a visionary leader recognized that automobiles were inevitable. Even then, Studebaker president Fred Fish was only thinking that autos would complement the use of draft animals, because farmers would never be able to afford horseless carriages.

Fish’s mistake was focusing on the next thing, missing what his competitor, Henry Ford, figured out: the thing after the thing, which was management science. Ford used operational and logistical information to cut costs, and suddenly a farmer could buy a vehicle. 

Ford’s adoption of management science is why you’re not driving a Studebaker today.

Are You Looking at Your Robot, or Is Your Robot Looking at You?

We’re at a nexus where artificial intelligence, cloud technology, and robotics have collided, and the result of that mash-up is sentient tools that are aware, can think and are social. They can get to know their users as individuals and interact with them specifically. The emergence of sentient tools is going to disrupt the way we live, that’s for certain.

Disruption is scary, and when people are scared, they fall back on one of three natural responses: fight, flight or freeze. None of these reactions will prevent the massive changes sentient tools are about to deliver. Jobs will go away and companies will change shape. That’s not something to be afraid of — it’s something to prepare for.

Be a Ford, Not a Fish

Visionaries are born, not made. That’s the mythos around the Jobs, Gates and Musks of the world. But it’s a false mythos. Vision is not a mystical gift or a trick of the gene pool. Vision a learnable skill. Here’s how it works:

First, look at what’s technologically possible. All the technology that’s going to emerge in the next 10 years is already being developed in corporate labs and universities — and universities publish, so the information is available. If you want to know what the world may look like in 2027, sharpen your research skills.

All that R&D may seem overwhelming. Which research will produce a viable technology? Which technology will be truly disruptive? You have what you need to answer those questions, because you already understand humans. The technologies you’ve researched that solve a problem people care about will see the light of day … if they’re economically viable.

Think back to Napster. Napster was a way to download media, but it was illegal and hard to use. Napster was portrayed in the media as the harbinger of doom for the music industry. If music and video was so easy to steal, why would anyone pay for it? And if no one would pay for it, how would artists continue to make their art? Napster would make music economically non-viable.

As it turned out, Napster didn’t make music economically non-viable, but Napster never became economically viable itself. So along came the next thing: Pandora and Spotify. These businesses solved a different problem. Instead of just making digital content available, they thought about how people use music to communicate with each other. Spotify’s tagline is Music brings us together, because the company realized music isn’t about songs, it’s about people. It’s about what your friends and Taylor Swift are listening to. Spotify commoditized the act of sharing.

Now the thing after the thing is emerging. Instead of buying the rights to listen to a song, individuals can buy a share of the rights to an artist’s catalog. Before, one person could own a catalog and reap the royalties, but catalogs are expensive, and royalties have been hard to track. Now, catalogs are still expensive but 1/100,000th of a catalog is not, and since technology has made royalties easy to track, individual investors can accurately and reliably receive their share of profits while they support their favorite artists.

The Tools of the Futurist: Research, Data and Storytelling

When you think like a futurist, you think further out. Don’t focus on the technology. Instead, think about what the next big thing will be that will make what we have now look ridiculous.

If you get this vision for the future, there are very specific things you can do to bring it about. Get in the habit of using data to build buy-in. Conduct research on the technologies being developed in labs today. Then use your data and your research to change the story that you tell yourself and your upper management about the future. This is how you build currency and capture funding.

Forget About the Robots: The Future Is Just People.

You have control over your future. That should be your mantra as we enter into another era of disruption, because if you don’t realize that you are shaping your own future — if you choose to passively react to whatever is thrown at you instead of taking control — you are in a dangerous place. Think about the future you want for yourself and your business, know the future you want to avoid, and make a plan.

The future is not about submitting to our robot overlords. It’s about meaningfully touching the lives of people in positive ways. If we can stay centered by focusing on making people’s lives better, we can do better, and we can do good.