By Geoff Colvin and Ryan Derousseau
July 7, 2016

Fortune 500 CEOs have told us for the past two years that their No. 1 challenge is “the rapid pace of technological change.” It’s hard in part because the advance of robots and artificial intelligence happens in small steps every day, lulling us into missing the magnitude of what it means. But leaders can’t afford to miss it. The challenge is to stay on top of what’s happening and continually to ask, “If this is possible today, what will be possible day after tomorrow?” Consider:

-A company called Starship Technologies begins in-the-wild testing of autonomous delivery robots in the U.K., Germany, and Switzerland this month. The knee-high, six-wheeled vehicles will roll down sidewalks carrying food or other merchandise from actual vendors to actual paying customers. Starship’s founders are Ahti Heinla and Janus Friis, who co-founded Skype.

The objections are obvious. Won’t vandals smash these things with cricket bats? Won’t alarmed pedestrians call the police? But a company spokesman tells Tech Crunch that the robots have already completed 5,000 miles of testing and encountered 400,000 people without any such incidents. That tells us something. Machines buzzing around autonomously don’t necessarily alarm people, and maybe the bad guys realize that such a device probably bristles with alarms and cameras (it does – nine cameras in this case). Still, just to be safe, humans will accompany the robots in this next phase of testing to monitor reaction and answer questions.

What’s most significant is that these may be the first autonomous robots to be integrated into human society in the public square, broadly defined. If Starship succeeds, we will have crossed an important threshold.

-Amazon on Monday awarded a $25,000 prize to a Dutch team for developing a robotic picker that could work in Amazon warehouses. The machine had to handle varied objects, removing them from a box and putting them in the right spot on the right shelf, and the reverse. Even this winning robot is much slower and clumsier than human workers, but then it doesn’t need medical benefits, won’t join a union, and can work 24 hours a day. And remember that robotic technology is doubling in power every two years. People are not.

-Which brings us to the European Parliament’s recent report raising the prospect of treating robots as “electronic persons” for tax purposes. We’ve mentioned this report before; now it’s drawing appropriate criticism pointing out that levying extra taxes on one of the most vibrant and productive sectors of the economy might not be the smartest idea. The legislators are worried that while people pay social security taxes, the robots that replace them don’t.

Let’s remember: We don’t know yet if the breathtaking advances in robotics and AI will reduce employment on net or, as technology has always done through history, will add jobs and raise living standards. As Amazon likes to point out, the more robots it uses, the more its business grows, and the more people it employs.

All of these news items raise the day-after-tomorrow question. Today’s leaders have to plan for a future that’s increasingly hard to imagine.

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