Discipline is Hard

Discipline is hard – harder than trustworthiness and skill and perhaps even selflessness. We are by nature flawed and inconsistent creatures. we can’t even keep from snacking between meals. We are not built for discipline. We are built for novelty and excitement, not for careful attention to detail. Discipline is something we have to work at.”(1)

These are not my words, of course. I was reading The 4 Disciplines of Execution, and I ran across this quote. The words are from Dr. Atul Gawande, and they started me thinking: thinking about robots and computers, security patrols, and the industrial revolutions. Perhaps I should explain.

The Industrial Revolutions

We tend to think of the Industrial Revolution as a single thing, but in reality in human history we have experienced three or four. There was the one we all learned about in school, when steam and petroleum based power were harnessed to dramatically change the process of manufacturing. This resulted in increased standards of living, greater availability of manufactured goods, the acceleration of populations moving from agricultural to urban dwellings, and all that stuff.  But, there have been other such revolutions. And the quote about discipline sparked a thought.

Perhaps the first revolution was not really industrial, although it set the stage for the rest. In this first revolution, we, as weak, clawless, thin-skinned people harnessed animal power.  We  stopped using people to cut furrows for wheat, and used oxen.  We stopped grinding corn in a human powered metate, and began to rely on animal powered grinding wheels.  The result was a significant increase in food production, the creation of food surpluses, and the beginning of leisure.  But the driver might have been discipline – or the lack of it.  Because it takes discipline to keep working in the hot sun, dragging a blade to cut a furrow, or to keep turning a wheel to grind grain into flour.  And we’re not good at discipline, so we improved our lives by shifting discipline onto an animal.

Several tens of thousands of years later, we did it again, shifting the discipline onto water power – the water wheel never said “I’m too tired to turn,” or “I’ll do it in the morning.”  Then we pushed it onto steam – and we had huge factories turning out products made from ore dug by steam, crushed by steam, smelted and then formed by steam. And no one had to have motivational meeting with the steam to encourage it to work an extra hour.  The assembly workers were a different matter, however. They still required discipline to put in the long, hard hours to produce the goods and services that society demanded.  And we are not good at discipline.

Robots and Computers

So we shifted the needed discipline onto (you knew I was going to get here eventually) robots and computers.  These tireless, disciplined machines began producing goods at an astounding rate – perhaps too quickly and too easily, but that is another blog. We were awash in stuff produced by machines – and we did it by shifting discipline onto the robots.

The robots could work all day and all night, but they were limited to physical actions.  The welding robot on the factory floor did not do the whole job of running a modern business. So, soon we had rooms full of people doing nothing but adding numbers, pushing paper, and compiling statistics.  And this, too, was grueling work that required long hours and, you got it, discipline. So in the most recent industrial revolution we harnessed computers to do this information processing task. Gone were the big rooms full of desks and adding machines, because we had shifted the discipline once again, this time onto the computers.


So, what does this have to do with security officers? Well, a security officer has a job that requires almost everything that Dr. Gawande identified: ‘Discipline is hard – harder than trustworthiness and skill and perhaps even selflessness.‘ A good security officer must be trustworthy, she must be skilled, and she must be selfless to a degree. After all, part of the job it to put one’s self on the line to protect others.  But above all it requires discipline, and discipline is hard for us. Much of the infrastructure of a guard team is to support discipline.  The training builds habits, and as we all know habits can make being disciplined easier. Guard tours – the devices we use to track the progress of a patrol – are designed to instill the drive that gets us down to the end of that long empty warehouse on every patrol. Post orders establish day-in and day-out routines, especially those that require discipline.  When we know that every other officer on the team is completing these tasks, that helps us to muster the discipline to do the job right. But, discipline is hard, and that is why we like robots.

The security robot is one way to start the next revolution – once again improving lives by shifting discipline. This time onto the robot.  It doesn’t care how dusty the hallway is, it goes down to the end, and reports back, every time. It doesn’t care if ‘nothing ever happens in the basement’, it always does its patrol. It doesn’t care if it is rolling into a dangerous situation, if you tell it to go there, it goes.  And, in the process it keeps us safer, and that makes lives better, because the robot doesn’t need to muster discipline – for a robot discipline is easy.

Where is your robot?(tm) Ours are being built at Gamma Two Robotics, in Colorado, USA

‘Creating a world in which people live better lives assisted by affordable, reliable, helpful robots.’

(1) Gawande, A., The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right  (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2009), 183.


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  1. #1 by matthijs85 on May 16, 2012 - 7:02 am

    I agree with the article, up to the point that robots are suggested as security officers, because of their perfect discipline.

    I don’t think robots can’t do any security tasks, but I think security is a branche in which being humane is often more important than being disciplined. Depending on how they are employed, security robots could benefit greatly from (computational) empathy, emotional intelligence and moral reasoning.

    For examples, see:

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