December 16, 2015
There’s a robot at the ALoft Hotel in San Francisco that delivers toothpaste and towels to guests. Amazon is seriously pressuring the FAA to give them access to public airspace so they can build a drone aircraft fleet that will enable same-day delivery, effectively bypassing traditional parcel services like UPS, and USPS with flying robots. In the shipping business, massive warehouses installed with a few strategically placed conveyors, and checkweighers can be managed by a small handful of workers. And the valet service at the airport in Dusseldorf, Germany, is now handled by a slick-looking robotic forklift system that moves cars into assigned parking bays while drivers walk away. Welcome to the future, a time when just about everything can be automated.
In 2013, there was estimated to be one industrial robot for every 5000 people worldwide. In total, that adds up to 1.2 million working robots performing various jobs. And that number has grown since. According to a report published by BBC News in Sept. 2015, Boston Consulting Group predicts that up to a quarter of jobs will be replaced by robots or smart software by 2025. That same report cited another study from Oxford University that suggests 35 percent of jobs in the UK may be automated in the next couple of decades. And those same Oxford researchers also believe as much as 47 percent of jobs worldwide could be automated in the next 20 years.
There’s no question automation is creating dramatic shifts in the job market paradigm. So, why pursue it? Is it just the project of powerful elites like Elon Musk looking to build new channels for creating capital? Or is there some fundamental, overarching benefit to humanity motivating the robot revolution? The answers on both sides of that question will remain debatable as robotics and automation become more prevalent moving forward. Still, it’s a debate worth having so let’s look a few commonly stated reasons behind automation in the job market.
To Minimize Risk to Human Lives
The prospect of using robots as both soldiers and astronauts is currently being heavily researched. NASA’s Robonaut2 is an android being developed through a partnership with GM. It’s basically a real-life version of the robot housemaid, Rosie, from The Jetsons. Robonaut2 is being designed to tackle menial jobs such as cleaning the space station and assisting human astronauts in space operations. That means like those giant warehouses with conveyors and checkweighers, the space station will be manageable with fewer human lives in harm’s way. It will also probably allow human astronauts to put more focus on their scientific work, which leads us to the next point.
Automation Frees Up Human Bandwidth
In the current system, medical professionals need to keep track of an almost inhuman amount of information, from anatomy, to pathology, to administrative protocols. Ask any doctor or nurse, and they’ll tell you, it’s a lot for one person to carry, day-in-day-out. Automation technologies from existing radiology information systems to futuristic robots promise to enable doctors and nurses to perform more human interaction and less of the role of keeping huge amounts of information in their heads. As Andrew Moore, dean of the school of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, who previously worked in AI and robotics at Google, told Wired, “The Nurse may become more prestigious than the doctor.”
Some Tasks Are Too Menial for Humans to Do Efficiently
Surprisingly, even many office jobs can be automated. A recent article published in Business Insider outlined how a computer programmer wrote scripts to automate nearly every single menial task in his day. He had even hacked the coffee machine in the break room. As the article states,
“He wrote a script that waits 17 seconds, then hacks into the coffee machine and orders it to start brewing a latte. The script tells the machine to wait another 24 seconds before pouring the latte into a cup, the exact time it takes to walk from the guy’s desk to the coffee machine.”
And his coworkers didn’t even know the coffee machine on was on the network and hackable.
The prospect of robots taking over so many jobs is both intriguing and scary. However, the idea that robots are “stealing” jobs may not be entirely accurate. As an article published on Wired in Aug. 2015 points out, “Humans must build these machines and program them and repair them. But they must also train them.” What that suggests is not so much a loss of jobs, but a shift in the type of work humans will perform in decades to come.
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