How Robots Are Transforming the Way We Work
For the past six years (or more) we have been hearing about the unprecedented advancement in robotics and artificial intelligence. But it wasn’t until earlier this year that AI and robots grabbed the attention of a much wider general audience. Sex robots aside, the biggest development in robotics has all of us wonder: how will this ever-evolving technology change the way we work?
While many robot-centered films depict robots as being machines of destruction bent on not only taking over the workplace, but the entire world—such as I, Robot’s army of NS-5 helper robots whose awakening brings about a thirst for the destruction of humanity—many other robot films are centered around the more positive and humanistic aspects of machines, such as Pixar’s Wall-E or the titular gentle robot in The Iron Giant. Opinions are divided on whether the future of robots will be one of coexistence or of a master-slave relationship, but one thing is for certain: robots are transforming the world, and more importantly, the way we work.
Much like I, Robot’s depiction of sentient robots as the end to human society, there is often a sense of fear in the general public’s understanding of robots and their role in the job economy. With current trends leaning towards increasing numbers of robots in the workforce as well as increased rates of unemployment for human workers, robots involved in low-skilled labor such as assembly and production-related jobs are often pinpointed as one of the main factors behind this concerning trend. Even as recent as this past March, companies such as Domino’s have announced the creation of robots capable of delivering pizzas to residents nearby any Domino’s franchise, an invention that many believe could put delivery drivers out of business and lead to potentially larger conflicts between self-driving automation technologies and those whose livelihood depends on working in the transportation industry.
Unfortunately, this fear isn’t completely unfounded. In the 1970’s, for example, the popularization of self-serve gas pumps rendered the majority of gas station attendants’ jobs obsolete. Since then, the rapid evolution of machinery has put to rest many classic forms of labor and in its place installed more efficient robotic technologies, such as Rethink Robotics’ Baxter robot, which is capable of not only basic assembly-line techniques, but also possesses the ability to learn new movements from hands-on learning in order to become widely applicable and flexible to the needs of different industries. The never-ending evolution of these machines often points to potential mass unemployment, with a 2016 study by the World Bank predicting that nearly two-thirds of jobs in developing nations will be replaced by automation. In the next 10 years alone, a Roland Berger study anticipates that robots could replace hundreds of thousands of unskilled jobs, potentially affecting up to 1.5 million positions in the Eurozone.
If movies such as Wall-E are to be trusted, however, a future of robots in the workplace does not necessarily spell out devastating losses for humans. While it is true that robots will take up many of the activities that unskilled workers currently perform, the amount of jobs won’t necessarily decrease as dramatically. First, the increasing demand for robots in the workplace will create countless jobs for people to design and assemble them, as well as skilled workers who can operate and maintain both current and future robots—something that could potentially lead to the introduction of an estimated 2 million jobs in the next eight years alone. Similarly, a Forrester Big Idea report forecasts that while 16% of jobs will disappear due to automation by 2025, there will be a simultaneous 9% increase in jobs, leading to a total net loss of 7%—much less than the devastating percentages of unemployment many people fear. While automation is inevitable and concerning, it is the automation of automation that will likely be the real change maker.
Relatedly, the increase in automation-based technologies working in unskilled labor positions will lead to a decrease the amount of employees working in more dangerous work positions, such as those that deal with repetitive tasks or unsafe working conditions. In Poland and Brazil, for example, drones are beginning to be used more frequently to inspect unsafe buildings, while others are being used to remove snow from roofs. Even more encouraging, the increasing intelligence of automation can be used to complement and augment the capabilities of human workers, such as robots working alongside human workers on assembly lines, a practice that is already being put into place in Ford factories throughout Germany. With this ever-increasing co-dependency between humans and robots, it is easy to view robots more as collaborative co-workers—or “co-bots,” as they are often coined—and less as the evil competitors many movies make them out to be.
In order to reach this ideal state of co-habitation in the workplace, however, it is imperative that we educate and prepare workers for an unpredictable future. With the vast majority of robots set to take over the more low-skilled jobs, having a human workforce of highly skilled workers to fill higher job roles is crucial—and therefore, both general education and specialized training is key to creating meaningful and important jobs for human workers.
On a more general scale, it is important to not only prepare the workers themselves, but also the job economy itself for the unpredictable effects that robotics will have on all industries. With the widespread introduction of home computers in the 1980’s and 1990’s, for example, training programs that focused on training workers to fix typewriters and other older technologies had to quickly adapt in order to train workers in computer repair and maintenance instead, lest these programs become obsolete. As we move forward, it is all too likely that reaction time to robotic innovations will have to increase dramatically both within and throughout all industries—and in order to accomplish this, training programs and educational institutions must remain flexible and prepare for an uncertain future.
Ultimately, the future of jobs and how robots will play a part in the job economy is completely dependent upon how humans proceed. While we should remain cautious and aware of the unpredictable nature of technology in the workplace, with proper preparation and a focus on creating a more educated human workforce, the benefits of working alongside automated technologies are endless. Instead of the dreary potential of a robot apocalypse that movies like I, Robot caution against, then, it is equally safe to say that our future partnership with robots will be one augmented by opportunities for advanced intelligence, unimaginable innovations, and prosperity for all involved.
About the author: Ana C. Rold is Founder and CEO of Diplomatic Courier, a Global Affairs Media Network. She teaches political science courses at Northeastern University and is the Host of The World in 2050–A Forum About Our Future. To engage with her on this article follow her on Twitter @ACRold.