The German futurologist Gerd Leonhard was invited to the 8th Haute Horlogerie Forum last autumn. He had one piece of advice to give to young people looking for a future career path: choose whatever you like, provided you can’t be replaced by a robot! On closer inspection, the choice isn’t actually all that wide. Hairdresser (probably). Plumber, given that a robot will never be as good at disentangling tubes and pipes as a human being. (An image of Robert de Niro as the heating engineer in Terry Gilliam’s brilliant dystopian science-fiction film Brazil comes to mind...)
Lawyer – probably not. Since May 2016, a robot by the name of Ross has been working in the Cleveland offices of BakerHostetler. Ross has already fathered children. His father is IBM. Ross’s area of expertise is corporate bankruptcy (I’m not making this up). He doesn’t speak in court (although that day may come); what he does is analyse, extremely efficiently, thousands and thousands of documents relating to corporate bankruptcy. Some of which is probably caused by robots.
Banker – that’s definitely a no. Trading is already dictated by algorithms.
Journalist? The industry is already on its knees – and robots are rubbing salt into the wounds. “Researchers from the Intelligent Systems Informatics Lab (ISI) at the University of Tokyo have developed a new prototype capable of travelling around, interviewing people, collecting information, taking photos with an onboard camera, performing web searches and posting articles online, completely independently. Eventually, they could replace reporters in areas considered too dangerous for humans,” explains Romain Serre of the prestigious European Communication School in Paris.
Watchmaker, then? They do make quite a fuss about their manual skills: the painstaking hours they spend polishing chatons, angling bridges and mounting tourbillons in their handcrafted cages.
But let’s not be coy: robotisation and automation are already key factors in many aspects of watchmaking. In many cases, and increasingly, human beings are only there to set up the robots. A new division of labour is emerging, as we saw when we visited the Omega factory in 2014: “Each time a bridge is added to an assembly, a single screw is inserted manually purely to secure the movement during its transport. The remaining screws are then selected and screwed in automatically by a special robot,” we wrote.
A very well-known watchmaker said to us a few weeks back: “There is an urgent need to put humans back at the centre.” Yes, but which humans?
As our German futurologist warned, “Contrary to what everyone is saying, the danger lies not with the humanisation of robots, but with the robotisation of humans.”