I had an interesting interview with Paul Horn, the head of IBM Research, when I was working on a about smart machines that was published in BusinessWeek this week. Four years ago, he coined the term "autonomics" to describe a new approach to computing. He saw back then that computing was becoming too complex, for corporations and individuals, and that could stifle the tech industry. So his solution was to get the whole industry--and academia, too--collaborating to come up with ways to make machines behave like the autonomic nervous system. They'd be self-regulating, self-managing, self-diagnosing, and even self-healing. When I asked him what the future of autonomics would be, he surprised me. Instead of talking about super-brainy computers capable of talking among themselves, he said autonomics could be American's answer to job outsourcing.
Horn said: "I like to think of about it in terms of Thomas Friedman and the world being flat. The Internet allows the building of software and the management of computing operations to go to low-labor-cost geographies. Meanwhile, major pieces of the IT industry are commoditized--hardware, software, and services. So the labor goes to low-cost places. If you take labor out of computing through automation, you take the labor-cost factor out to some extent. When you do that, you can the place the work in high-labor-cost places."
"If you go out 10 to 20 years, the more you can take labor out of the equation, the better it is for the more innovative and high-labor-cost parts of the world. It makes succeeding in services more about who has the best technology to get the work done fastest--not who has the lowest labor costs. In this way, a highly innovative society can trump a lower-labor-cost society."
This makes sense, but it doesn't really address the job-loss side of the equation. American workers are still going to lose their jobs, whether it's to Chinese and Indian workers or to American automation. At least, with automation, the losses are probably more gradual--and the automation adds value to American companies.
One other thought: The more time I spend talking to Indian and Chinese entrepreneurs, the harder it is to see the world from a purely US-centric point of view. The role of nationalism in biz is becoming pretty damned fuzzy.