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    September 1, 2023

    Empowering the Workforce Through Robotics and AI: Joyce Sidopolous' Journey from Sonar to MassRobotics

    Joyce Sidopolous is Co-founder and Chief of Operations at MassRobotics - a non-profit startup accelerator and innovation center with a mission to enable the global robotics industry. Robots are no longer confined to science fiction; they're an integral part of industries ranging from healthcare to agriculture, manufacturing to retail. The global robotics technology generated $72 billion in 2022 and is expected to reach around $283 billion by 2032. Recent advancements in AI stand to increase the velocity of innovation in robotics exponentially.



    Joyce Sidopolous, Co-founder and Chief of Operations at MassRobotics


    I recently sat down to chat with Sidopolous about future of work trends as part of my research to produce Season 1 of The Lever with Drew Fortin. This show highlights how the rise of artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, and Web3 will shift the paradigm of humans at work for the better. I wrote this article based on my notes and transcripts from the interview. You can also watch a video of my interview with Joyce Sidopolous, Co-founder and Chief of Operations at MassRobotics.

    From Sonar to Robotics: Sidopolous' Journey of Innovation and Collaboration

    Sidopolous began her professional journey as a civilian researcher in underwater sonar for the US Navy. This experience paved her way into an Air Force role with General Dynamics and other defense contractors. She embarked on her robotics career about 12 years ago, organizing a rapidly expanding robotics cluster for the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council, a prominent tech trade organization in Massachusetts.

    Recognizing the need for a collaborative space for robotics companies, Sidopolous and her colleagues conceived the idea of MassRobotics. This venture, now housing around 75 robotics startups in a 50,000-square-foot space, offers shared resources for hardware and software development, which can be prohibitively expensive. Moreover, it supports its members by assisting in talent acquisition and funding procurement, fostering their growth and advancement.

    Sidopolous reviewed significant trends in the robotics industry. Manufacturing and logistics are currently leading the charge, with healthcare not far behind. The defense industry, a long-time robotics user, is also seeing an uptick. The pandemic notably accelerated these trends as the need for contactless operations in factories and warehouses became paramount due to health restrictions. The pandemic's surge in online orders highlighted challenges that robotics and AI are well-positioned to address.

    Sidopolous highlights a pressing issue in the manufacturing industry: a dwindling labor force. Many manufacturers are grappling with this challenge, as the work is often repetitive and manual. The aging workforce is another concern, with many older workers hoping to spare their children from the same toil.

    "Every manufacturer we know that has employed robots has increased their headcount. They need more pickers, shippers, marketers, and salespeople. When you increase efficiency, you're also increasing production, which is increasing the need for more employees" - Joyce Sidopolous, Co-founder and Chief of Operations at MassRobotics

    Sidopolous suggests introducing automation and robotics into the mix to address these issues. This makes the field more appealing and creates opportunities for innovation and efficiency. Indeed, students may find a career in manufacturing more intriguing when it involves working with advanced technology.

    Sidopolous also points out that many manufacturers now house growing innovation groups. These groups focus on streamlining processes and integrating technology, making the work less about manual labor and more about technological advancement.

    Interestingly, she notes that manufacturers employing robots have actually seen an increase in their employee count. As robots boost efficiency and production, the demand for roles in shipping, marketing, and sales also rises. Thus, contrary to popular belief, automation could potentially lead to job growth.

    The Convergence of Robotics and Artificial Intelligence

    Sidopolous asserts that the realms of AI and robotics are not merely parallel but converging. This convergence has been underway for some time, with AI being integrated into robotic systems. Robots use sensors to collect data, which is then processed to determine their actions - a function facilitated by AI.

    She likens this to teaching her children to drive. "I always think about it as when I was teaching my children to drive, I had to teach the first daughter. If I could just have taken all of the information that she learned and put it into the second daughter's brain," Sidopolous said. "It would've been a lot easier to sit in that passenger seat and not have to say, 'not so close to the side of the road.' And then by the time I got to my teaching my fourth daughter, I could have just sat back and had my coffee and let her drive because she would've learned."

    If Sidopolous could have transferred the driving knowledge from one child to another, it would have expedited the learning process. Similarly, AI and machine learning allow for knowledge transfer between robots, negating the need for each robot to learn independently.

    Furthermore, Sidopolous mentions how cloud computing has made robotics less costly. With computations taking place in the cloud rather than on the hardware itself, robots have become more affordable, making them more appealing to manufacturers.

    Harnessing Robotics and AI in Manufacturing for Business Success

    Sidopolous emphasized the empowering role of robots in augmenting work, especially in manufacturing. Picture a factory worker overseeing multiple robots rather than performing repetitive tasks. She drew parallels with historical shifts, like the advent of tractors and cars that displaced manual labor and horse-drawn carriages.

    However, Sidopolous noted that the pace of change today is much faster due to robotics and AI. The challenge lies in equipping students with the necessary skills to navigate this rapidly evolving landscape. Yet, she observes that most school children can already navigate an iPhone or an app, suggesting a readiness to adapt.

    Startups are working on making robotic interfaces user-friendly, so factory workers need not understand complex robotics but just the interface. This shift would make their roles more about monitoring and improving processes than performing monotonous tasks.

    "So now is the time for an upskilling of workers and think about what can we put into the public school systems that are going to get people ready and excited about these types of jobs. You could be managing 10 robots. How cool is that?!" - Joyce Sidopolous, Co-founder and Chief of Operations at MassRobotics

    Reflecting on the evolution of education since the 1800s, Sidopolous suggests it may be time for an upskilling revolution, particularly within public schools. Preparing students for jobs where they could manage multiple robots sounds exciting and aligns with the future of work.

    Empowering the Future Workforce with Robotics and AI

    Sidopolous posited that the future of work will demand more than transactional skills from its workforce. She envisions a shift where employees are not confined to simple, repetitive tasks - a role increasingly taken over by robots.

    Instead, she emphasizes the need for workers to oversee multiple tasks, identify bottlenecks, and enhance processes. This requires a comprehensive understanding of the business, encompassing everything from supply chain management to marketing strategies.

    Sidopolous believes this shift will empower workers, freeing them from the confines of a singular role and enabling them to engage with the broader business processes. She also sees an opportunity for education systems to prepare students for this evolving landscape, potentially through courses that provide a holistic understanding of business operations in a manufacturing context.

    Leveraging Technology and Talent: A Strategic Approach to Empower Success

    Sidopolous asserts that computer science should be integral to every educational curriculum, considering it a life skill that fosters logical thinking. She illustrated this by comparing the thought process in computer science to everyday decision-making scenarios, such as fueling a car or choosing an apartment.

    While acknowledging the gradual inclusion of computer science in school curriculums, Sidopolous argues that it should not replace other vital skills. She lamented the loss of practical skills, like sewing a button, in favor of more advanced subjects. To address this, she proposes extending the duration of schooling by a year, allowing students to mature and gain a clearer idea of their future paths.

    "I think computer science should be a mandate for everybody. I mean, even people going into mechanical engineering and those other things, it's a process in the way of thinking. And I think even in life, it's a life skill. If you think of computer science as an if-then-else statement and the outputs and the consequences, it's basically every part of your life." - Joyce Sidopolous, Co-founder and Chief of Operations at MassRobotics

    Furthermore, Sidopolous suggests integrating a year or two of community service into the education system, fostering a deeper understanding of societal challenges. She believes this could inspire students to devise solutions to these problems during their university years.

    When questioned about what subject computer science should replace, Sidopolous firmly states that it should be considered its own entity, not replacing any existing subjects. She acknowledges the difficulty in altering established institutions but maintains her stance on the importance of computer science education.

    On Upskilling Workers Displaced by Robotics

    Sidopolous highlighted the sector-dependent nature of upskilling, citing construction as an example where upskilling could involve learning to control robots for tasks such as excavation or painting remotely. She acknowledged resistance from older generations who may prefer retirement to upskilling but encouraged younger individuals familiar with technology like cell phones to embrace upskilling opportunities. Sidopolous emphasized the importance of hands-on experience at the school level to reduce anxiety about learning new skills in the workforce.

    In terms of upskilling related to robotics, Sidopolous anticipates a standardization of interfaces across different robot manufacturers, making it easier for workers to adapt. She compares this to driving different brands of cars, all of which have similar basic controls.

    "And so you're truly investing in the employee and not specifically in just the company. So they want you to be upskilled and be able to move and take your learnings to another place as well. So they're really investing in the people." - Joyce Sidopolous, Co-founder and Chief of Operations at MassRobotics

    Sidopolous believes that the responsibility of upskilling falls on both companies and the federal government. She argues that companies should invest in upskilling their loyal, long-serving employees rather than solely focusing on new hires. However, she also values a mixed workforce for the diversity of ideas it brings. She points out that many states offer programs that financially support manufacturers in upskilling their workers, emphasizing that these investments are in the individuals, not just the companies.

    Is Technological Proliferation Disturbing the Employee-Employer Relationship?

    Sidopolous advocated for an employee-employer relationship that is rooted in empowerment. She emphasized the importance of allowing employees to make decisions, take ownership of their work, and recognize their contributions. This approach, she believes, should extend to the integration of technology, such as robotics, into the workplace.

    She suggested that employees should be included in the decision-making process when introducing a robot into a manufacturing environment. For instance, asking employees about tasks they find mundane could inform what roles the robot might take on. Sidopolous argues that this level of involvement can help employees feel more comfortable with new technology.

    Instead of implementing multiple robots at once, Sidopolous advised introducing one initially. This allows employees to familiarize themselves with the technology in a less intimidating way. She also suggests humanizing the robot by naming it or dressing it in a local sports team's cap to help employees see it as part of their team.

    Ultimately, Sidopolous stressed the importance of transparency between employers and employees. She believes that employers should clearly communicate that integrating technology aims not to replace jobs but to improve them and empower employees. Honesty and openness, she asserts, are key to a successful relationship.

    Unlocking Workforce Productivity: Embracing the Shift from Quantity to Quality in the Robotics Era

    In the era of robotics, Sidopolous argued that individual evaluation in the workplace is shifting from quantity to quality. While previously employees might be assessed on the volume of their output, the introduction of robots to handle simpler tasks changes this dynamic. It's no longer about whether an employee can produce 10 boxes versus 20, but rather the efficiency and perfection of those boxes.

    Sidopolous suggested that the focus now lies in areas such as minimizing waste and optimizing resource usage. For instance, a shoe factory worker might previously have been evaluated on the number of soles produced. With a robot handling production, the worker could shift towards improving the process to reduce excess rubber trimming off each sole, thereby saving materials and reducing costs.

    Furthermore, Sidopolous believes integrating robots can enhance the overall work environment. When employees enjoy collaborating with robots, the workplace becomes more engaging and fun. This shift could alleviate pressure associated with production targets, allowing employees to focus more on enhancing efficiency and quality.

    In conclusion, the incorporation of robots into the workplace necessitates a shift in employee evaluation strategies. The emphasis should move from sheer production numbers to efficiencies, waste reduction, and overall cost savings. The goal? To unlock the full potential of both human talent and technological advancement in the workplace.

    The Impact of Hybrid and Remote Work on Robotics

    Sidopolous highlighted the rise of remote work, particularly in fields that interact with robotics and advanced technologies. For instance, factories employing robots for specific tasks on a conveyor belt can now leverage remote workers to handle malfunctions. When an issue arises, these offsite freelance workers can remotely troubleshoot and rectify the problem, ensuring smooth operations.

    She also discussed the utilization of telepresence robots in industries like automotive manufacturing. Experts, regardless of their geographical location, can remotely assist in troubleshooting high-end cars. They can guide onsite staff through complex processes, enhancing efficiency and expertise.

    The medical field has also seen an increase in remote work. Sidopolous mentioned the example of heart specialists assisting surgeries from remote locations, further demonstrating the broad application of remote work in various industries.

    These examples Sidopolous provided underscore the versatility of remote work and its potential to revolutionize industries by leveraging technology and global talent.

    The Importance of STEM Education in Closing Minority Gaps

    In closing out our time together, Sidopolous emphasized the significance of STEM education, particularly in underrepresented demographics that lack access to robotics, such as inner cities. She points out that numerous programs introduce young learners to a wide range of industries utilizing robotics - from construction and underwater drones to medicine and agriculture.

    She further elaborated on the hands-on workshops they host, where students engage in activities ranging from programming to drone building, sparking their interest in science and technology.

    Sidopolous insists that while not all career paths will directly involve robotics, the increasing integration of robots into various industries necessitates a broader understanding of areas such as supply chain. Hence, she refers to robotics as an enabling technology for all industries, underscoring the importance of early exposure to STEM education.

    Sidopolous ended our interview by making a very profound point. "Robotics is not an industry in itself. It's an enabler to many industries," she said.

    Want to hear more from Joyce Sidopolous, Co-Founder & Chief of Operations at MassRobotics?


    Drew Fortin

    Drew is a people-first, values-driven leader with nearly 20 years of growth strategy and team-building experience across retail, marketing technology, local media, and HR tech. He spent 7 years at The Predictive Index, where he was Chief Growth Officer responsible for the company's strategy to build the world's first...

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