Sunday, July 16, 2017

Cry 'Havoc,' and let slip the . . . llamas of war?

First, my apologies to Shakespeare. Sweet Will's Mark Antony never actually mentions llamas in Julius Caesar. More's the pity, of course. Think what a llama or two would have added to the play!

But back to business. Or in your case, a possible loss of business. That is to say, yes, you may lose your job. Technology is disrupting many industries, and people fear that their jobs will be taken over by computers, AI, robotics, etc. I wrote about the topic in Leveling the Playing Field, and my take on the subject was mostly positive. My position was (and is) that, yes, technology will obsolete many jobs, but that those job losses will be more than made up for by new jobs required by the new technology. (I realize that this is small comfort to the suddenly unemployed grocery cashier who finds that he or she must retrain in order to qualify for one of those new jobs. More about that in a bit…)

Naturally, thinking about tech disruptions and job losses made me think of llamas.

Llamas are awesome animals. They're smart, social, and loyal, and quite popular: In the U.S. alone, there are well over 150,000 llamas roaming the countryside or penned up in pastures or corrals. (There are also another 100,000 or so alpacas, a camelid related to the llama, wandering the country.)

Moose, protecting his barnyard. He was a
good llama.
Llamas are great guard-dogs. Well, I suppose technically they would be guard-llamas. At any rate, they're very protective and not many coyotes or foxes would dare invade a chicken coop or henhouse guarded by a shaggy, angry, 400 lb. beast whose heart has sworn undying fealty to the chickens he loves. (Actually, I don't know if llamas really love chickens; I just liked writing that.) My friends Linda and Dale once owned a llama named Moose whose job it was to protect their chickens, and Moose took his job very seriously; the household dogs quickly learned to stay away from Moose and the chicken coop. Moose liked nothing better than to stomp on a barnyard interloper, so along with the household dogs, all the foxes, weasels, coyotes and sundry other murderous creatures in the area also learned to stay away. (Since they had a llama named Moose, I once suggested that Linda and Dale get a moose and name it Llama, but for some reason this was not a suggestion that appealed to them.)

Anyway, almost everyone likes llamas, and that includes the Israeli army. For years, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) has used them as porters to haul equipment over rough terrain. A llama, after all, can carry more than 25% of its body weight over hills and mountains, and through ravines and gullies that would stop even the hardiest of soldiers. The IDF loves its llamas.

Or it did, anyway. Recently, the IDF has decided to phase out the "llama corps" (that would make a very interesting shoulder patch, as well as a great name for a band), replacing it with . . . you knew I was getting to this . . . a robot. The new robot's specs are classified for the moment, but observers say that the mechanical llama (which is undoubtedly NOT what it will be called) will look and act much like the Roboteam PROBOT, which can reliably carry up to 1,500 pounds over rough terrain.

It's hard to argue with their decision. A llama can carry 80 pounds or so and needs to be fed, groomed, and rested daily; replacing it with an unsleeping, tireless machine that always does exactly what it's told and can carry about 18 times what a llama can carry just seems to make sense. And of course, the robot will never spit at you, which llamas have been known to do with some regularity. (Also, it's probably important to note that a sexually aroused male llama produces a mating sound called an "orgle." I would recommend avoiding an "orgling" llama, lest you become the object of his affections. I would imagine that robots almost never "orgle.")

This is the Roboteam PROBOT, to which the company refers as an
"All-Terrain Carrier and Recon Robot." It's definitely not as cute as
Moose. Image courtesy of Roboteam.
Then again, the robot isn't perfect. Robots are not cute or fluffy. Robots do not grow wool that can be made into coats and hats and scarves. And robots cannot (for the time being) make new robots, whereas llamas, when left to their own devices, do an excellent job of making more llamas. (Also, a baby llama is called a cria, which is about the cutest name for a llama puppy ever.) Each new robot, on the other hand, must be individually machined, assembled, and programmed, at a cost of maybe $100K each. However, I would imagine that the IDF is into efficacy and efficiency, and not so much into cute and fluffy; they're apparently willing to spend this kind of money in order to equip their troops with the latest technology, even at $100K apiece.

Of course, as with other disruptive technologies, this is going to put some folks out of work. I don't know how many llama wranglers (another good name for a band, but of course it'd have to be a country band) will be prepared to make the leap from training and grooming camelids to working with the robotic versions of Moose and his friends. The jobs will be there, of course: As robots become smarter and more ubiquitous, we'll need ever more roboticists, technical illustrators, programmers, QC engineers, designers, systems analysts, assemblers, machinists, and more. (Not to mention people to design, build, and maintain the buildings in which these new devices will be created.) In the end, technology almost always adds career options, but locally, people who are not ready to relearn, rebuild, and retrain for those new careers are going to be in for a tough time. In our parents' and grandparents' day, one worked in one career (indeed, often for one company) for a lifetime; now we're transitioning into an era in which workers must always be ready to shift gears, change companies, leave jobs, and even switch careers.

As a side note, I'm pretty sure the Roboteam developers could program PROBOT to "orgle" if they wanted. In fact, knowing programmers as I do, I would be very surprised if they haven't already done so. I mean, c’mon; there's simply no way they could resist. Someday, on some battlefield in a far-off land, a PROBOT is going to suddenly become . . . amorous. Pity the poor soldier marching beside this beast when instead of beeping placidly, it suddenly begins to "orgle."


  1. Moving from wrangling to engineering (I'm told out here in Microsoft/Amazon land that programers are known as "engineers") reminds me that some time ago I read that in today's world one would anticipate haveing five jobs, perhaps all quite different, in one's working lifetime. When I read this, and being a strong union advocate, it stuck me that union's were somewhat derelict always trying to preserve jobs instead of working to help members transition. Even today, I read little of helping folk transition. We do a pretty good job with management level types, but the guy slogging it out in the mines or fields?

    1. Interesting point abut the unions! In today's tech-driven workplace, the unions could be doing a lot of good if they helped folks retrain, set aside funds for education, lobbied for employers to provide some transition mechanisms!

  2. ....and all my life I thought you had to go fly with Frank Sinatra to see Llamas. PS. The sole purpose of a "software engineer", is to make the complex more complicated. This is how they justify their existence. Sorry Rod, I couldn't help myself.