I doubt there was a kid in the 1950s who didn’t believe household robots would become as commonplace as family pets. My friends and I were mesmerized by the mechanical marvels on TV and in the movies. We knew there were two basic kinds: malevolent ones that would fry you to a crisp with their death-ray vision, and benevolent ones that performed manual labor to free mankind for loftier goals. We were banking on the second group to deliver us from the burden of onerous kid duties such as taking out the garbage, shoveling snow or weeding the garden.
Some of us tried to speed the process along by conducting R&D in our fathers’ workshops. Crisco shortening cans were the ideal construction material. Strip off the paper labels, cut out the bottoms and you had shiny metal cylinders for fabricating robot arms, legs and heads. Success was elusive. Beyond adding a couple bicycle reflectors for eyes and a flashbulb nose, we were stumped. Despite our best efforts, our creations didn’t walk, didn’t talk and definitely didn’t raise a finger to help with our daily chores. Even as interest waned, we remained confident someone would solve the problem of bringing a pile of nuts and bolts to life. It was just a matter of time until we would be able to order robots from the Montgomery Ward catalog.
It’s been 50 years since I first saw Robby the Robot, and I’m still taking out my own garbage. What I failed to grasp as a kid was the economics of technology. Few companies would invest in the development of a mechanical Jeeves, when there were simpler, less expensive alternatives.
When it comes to having someone cater to your every whim, it appears a growing number of people have indeed found a cheaper alternative. This may be old news to you, but I’ve only recently read about the phenomenon of personal outsourcing. Are there things you can’t do, won’t do or haven’t found time to do? There’s someone, somewhere, who will. Need your parking lot plowed or your cat neutered? No problem. Just log-on to the Internet, contract with a personal outsourcing company, and they’ll arrange to have someone in your area take care of it. Excuse me, but isn’t that what the Yellow Pages are for?
While there are U.S. companies that will answer to your beck and call, it appears that personal outsourcing, like manufacturing and service outsourcing, has become a major growth industry in cheap labor markets on the other side of the globe. I suppose there is a certain logic to it, especially when considering the rates charged by some of these offshore services. If you’re earning a hefty wage, it may make good financial sense to stop spending “dollar hours on nickel jobs.” Why not pay someone ten dollars an hour to attend to your personal needs? Plus, think how impressed your friends would be if you could settle a dispute about who played the mother on the Brady Bunch by simply contacting your personal assistant in Katmandu.
In reviewing tasks that personal outsourcers have done or are willing to do, I concede they can provide a useful function, especially when a client is unfamiliar with a situation or doesn’t know where to begin. Finding a missing person or helping someone communicate in a foreign country are noteworthy accomplishments. But others border on the ridiculous or absurd: helping someone find employment who lost his job to outsourcing, reading bedtime stories to children over the phone (I guess the parents have more important things to do), purchasing underwear on the Internet and doing research on how to tie a shoelace.
Americans aren’t the only ones utilizing offshore, personal outsourcing, but considering the nature of some requests, I wonder how we’re perceived by people staffing these call centers. Imagine the conversations that must take place over lunch. “You won’t believe what my crazy American client asked me to do today ….” At least the owners of these companies have something to laugh about – all the way to the bank.
Have a profitable day,