I’ll be the first to admit that my robot vacuum has made my life so much easier that I now own several – and wonder how I ever lived without them. (Full disclosure: I test tech products, so I didn’t have to pay for my favorite housemates.)
It’s not hard for me to embrace robot vacuums because I hate housework, so anything that moves that task off my plate is more than welcome. I get paid to write; I don’t get paid to do housework.
But if I did get paid to do housework, would I feel the same way?
Most – if not all – of our technological advances seem to create what is often viewed as a win/lose scenario: a win for consumers seeking convenience and/or for companies that want to cut costs and increase efficiency, but a loss for displaced employees and/or soon-to-be-obsolete industries.
Will the robots that make our lives easier also threaten our livelihoods?
Which Workers Are Likely To Be Displaced by Robots?
Before we starting talking about the jobs that are and continue to be taken over by robots, Ian Ferguson at Lynx Software Technologies, believes that it’s important to understand the unique strengths of both robots and human workers.
“First, robots can be programmed to be strong, precise and fast, and they lack emotions, so they’ll never be bored.” As a result, Ferguson believes robots are ideal for certain types of tasks. “We are seeing robots take ownership of roles that would have put humans at risk on job sites that are underwater, underground, or behind enemy lines,” he says. And since the pandemic started, Ferguson notes that robots have been safely and efficiently dispensing medicine in hospitals – which keeps both patients and hospital workers safe. (Read also: Drones in 2020, What's Next?)
Steven Umbrello, managing director at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, agrees that robotic process automation (RPA) trends have only been exacerbated by the current pandemic, as companies look for ways to provide distance and safety. “We can see this particularly in the healthcare industry that has taken chatbots as a means of interfering between humans.” This reduces human interaction, but it also serves another purpose. “It justifies continued operation – underscoring the continued need to operate at a reduction of cost and strains on productivity, given the logistics and labor decline during the past year,” Umbrello explains.
For example, the pandemic severely disrupted U.S. supply chains, and in January, 2021, Bloomberg reported that some manufacturers reported absenteeism rates as high as 25%. That’s not something those companies want to experience again. (Read also: Has a Global Pandemic Changed the World's View of AI?)
“These types of AI systems will not only continue, but will also be used as a means to justify to legislators and regulatory bodies the continued upscaling of production given the reduction of human-to-human interactions in confined spaces,” Umbrello says. The advantages are obvious – not a single robot called in sick, needed a COVID-19 test, or was required to maintain social distancing, so some companies view them as vital to long-term sustainability.
But it’s not just healthcare and potentially dangerous jobs that robots are overtaking. “Within the stock market alone, most independent brokers have been displaced and will continue to be displaced,” Umbrello says. “The vast majority of trades are done by fast trading algorithms that are capable of executing a number of trades that far exceeds that of any human agent.”
And perhaps that’s the surprising part. Most people have probably communicated with chatbots, so they knew that certain jobs, like customer service reps, were probably in danger. And a study by MIT revealed that from 1990 to 2007, every robot added in the manufacturing sector replaced approximately 3.3 workers. As the BBC reports, another study, by Oxford Economics, found that globally, 20 million manufacturing jobs will be lost by 2030 (1.5 million jobs in America).
However, even degreed professions, such as translators, journalists, radiologists, and even accountants and tax preparers could be in danger. And that’s because replacement has less to do with whether the job requires a college degree and more about the level of repetitive or formulaic work involved.
“This group includes highly educated white-collar workers such as accountants–many of whose mathematical work can now be done by smart applications (like Turbotax, for instance) –and paralegals–whose fact-checking, editing and formulation of routine documents can now be done by AI-based applications,” says Kevin LaGrandeur, Ph.D., a professor at the New York Institute of Technology, fellow at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, co-founder of the NY Posthuman Research Group, and author of Surviving the Machine Age. And Oxford economists warns that over the next 20 years, almost 40% of all jobs could be lost.
Working With Robots
Deloitte, which releases an annual human capital trends report, has coined the phrase “superteams” to describe groups of people and intelligent machines working together. Only 12% of leaders in Deloitte’s 2020 report said they planned on using AI to replace workers; 60% said they were using AI to assist workers.
LaGrandeur notes that some economists believe that only about 10% of jobs will be lost. “That’s because only certain tasks within jobs are being automated, which will leave those workers to fill their time with less automatable work.” As an example, he points to accountants who don’t have to spend so much time crunching numbers on tax returns, so they can instead use that time to actually counsel their clients.
“Another example is an innovation called the Roboglove, made by NASA and GM, to help reduce repetitive stress injuries on the automotive factory floor,” LaGrandeur says. “It gives an added 10 pounds of bionic force for holding tools, using sensors, simulated nerves, muscles, tendons, and is in prototype.”
However, LaGrandeur predicts that – as with previous industrial revolutions – there will be significant job losses in the transitional period, which should last about 20 years. “Thereafter, the new technology will create more jobs than it destroys, including new ones having to do with their care and creation, as well as jobs designed to be done by a team of robots – called ‘cobots’ and humans together.”
But how soon this will occur is still a matter of debate. Ferguson believes that many industry leaders (at least in the near future) envision workplaces where robots support, rather than uproot the human workforce. (Read also: 6 (Scary) Things AI Is Getting Better At Doing.)
“Robots are supporting doctors’ ability to focus more on patient care instead of retrieving and filing information.” And since factory robots are still relatively expensive and large, he believes automation will only gain widespread popularity on a specific criterion. “Only when — or if — the economics justify the purchase for the role that must be filled – for example, the task of building one thing, one way, forever.”
But Ferguson sees the current trend of personalization and customization as perhaps preventing robots from ever taking over completely. “Adjusting robots for new process flows is challenging, and downtime impacts factory output and effectiveness,” he says. “We are starting to see a new class of smaller, more cost-effective robots that, unlike traditional robots that are sequestered from humans, will work hand in hand with the human workforce.”
In November, 2020, Walmart announced that it was ending its robot inventory project, which used shelf-scanning robots to track inventory in the store’s aisles. Although Walmart previously said that automating inventory would reduce labor costs and provide more accurate inventory results, the company reversed its decision, opting to let employees handle this task. Score one for the humans.