Would you stand in line to see a robot’s replica of the Mona Lisa?

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aaeaaqaaaaaaaadqaaaajdy5odgxn2vllwi5ytktndc5my1imdrlltyzn2y4ztdjywm3zgIndia’s iShippo, founded by serial entrepreneur Karma Bhutia, provides an online marketplace for handmade products. It aims to connect craftspeople from relatively remote parts of India who would not otherwise have access to a broad market for their wares. We spoke to Bhutia about the premium that handmade products command over machine-made products, and what would happen when robots become smarter than humans.

Do you think machines are becoming too smart?

To answer that question, we have to delve into the evolution of the Industrial Era, the dawn of Industrie 4.0 & hyper-automated mass production. Before the dawn of the industrial revolution, we depended on manual labour, human ingenuity and skill to produce goods. Then, machines driven by water/steam brought greater reliability & efficiency, making muscle power relatively redundant.

The second industrial revolution, driven by the use of electric power, gave rise to efficient & abundant production. The third industrial revolution was impacted hugely by the use of electronics and IT to further automate production.

Industrie 4.0 takes our dependency on machines to a whole new level. Humans have embraced extreme automation, 3D Printing, robotics, artificial intelligence, deep learning, the Internet of Things, cloud computing and data exchange without considering the end consequence. Humanity’s march into a robot-dependent society is alarming.

It is an established fact that when a job is automated, productivity is usually increased. The machine can do the job faster and cheaper. Many countries are debating issues such as Universal Basic Income and taxation if Robots/Artificial Intelligence render the working human population redundant. It is very likely that by the year 2050 intelligence will become trillions of times more powerful than it is today.

This is a game changer. As a citizen of India my concern for the population of 1.2 billion is that we might not have the right tools to deal with this dramatic human job-loss scenario. Therefore our hope is in people who will explore their creative potential and pick up art, craft & skills that allow them to earn a livelihood beyond Universal Basic Income (hence iShippo.)

As technologies such as 3D printing become more sophisticated, will handmade products continue to retain their premium?

Painting robots can replicate the Mona Lisa stroke for stroke. However, how many people would pay to see a replica?

Handmade products have their own charm and therefore command a premium. A machine-made pizza base will bake evenly but a hand-tossed pizza base, though less perfect, is more desirable. It’s hard to elucidate but, in many cases, handmade products will always have an edge over machine-made products and thus will always command a premium.

As 3D Printing technology becomes more sophisticated we will be able to print many of our daily household appliance in our homes. However, 3D printers won’t be able to replace handmade art, craft, clothes or artefacts. Subjective judgement, creativity, and empathy will be too tricky for robots or 3D printers to master.

Is there a way for producers of hand-made goods to benefit from economies of scale?

Yes and No. For producers of handmade products to benefit from economies of scale they would have to introduce an “assembly-line” set up or work like a commune of individuals working on a particular process. This process-like activity might drive volumes up but would reduce the creative contribution of the individual artisan.

For example, if we take the workmanship on a Savile Row suit or a Patek Philippe watch, these would involve more than 1 person working on it. However each individual is considered a master craftsman in his or her process. Ideally producers should streamline operations and incorporate process and craftsmanship without inhibiting the creativity and individual brilliance of the artisan.

Bhutia is set to join more than 200 other e-commerce, retail and payments professionals speaking at Seamless Asia. For more information, download our brochure here, or go right ahead and register here.

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