Many news stories about robots have a bit of fun joking about the impending robot apocalypse when the machines no longer need us. For many people, a more frightening and real possibility is that a robot may be coming for their jobs. It can feel odd to celebrate the admittedly fascinating advances in fields like self-driving cars and manufacturing robots, because these devices are quite likely to replace humans. Still, this is nothing new — automation has been taking over human jobs for as long as we’ve had the capacity to worry about such things as a society. As we approach a new age of automation, what will become of us?
Robotic technology has come a long way in just the last decade. We’ve gone from contraptions that could barely get up on two feet or pick up an object, to advanced robots that cannot be knocked down or can place small components in a smartphone chassis. Just look at how Foxconn has improved the monotonous task of assembling small electronics.
Last year, the company explained that its plans to replace some of its workforce were on hold because the robotic arms it had designed were not precise enough to add components to iPhones based on Apple’s stringent requirements. However, a few months ago, Foxconn announced that an improved version of the Foxbot had resulted in the elimination of 60,000 human workers in its factories. The robots are simply better at repetitive tasks than humans who demand bathroom breaks and wages.
In the same vein, there’s Amazon and its network of massive warehouses. These facilities still rely on human workers, but the company has also increased automation with robots manufactured by Amazon’s Kiva subsidiary. These squat automatons jet around the building, picking up shelves and other heavy objects to move them where humans can pick your order more easily. Amazon insists this is not about eliminating jobs, but it’s not exactly ending its efforts to automate the warehouse game. The company hosts robotics competitions that encourage engineers to develop computer vision systems and graspers that can identify and pick up products from a shelf. That’s one of the main things humans still do in Amazon’s warehouses.
Self-driving cars are further from reality, but they could make an even bigger impact on the way we live and work. Google is at the forefront of this technology, and has been testing the cars for several years. The company is keen to point out that in all the miles it has driven, there have been virtually no accidents, and most of those were caused by the fallible humans behind the wheel. More recently, Uber has started researching self-driving car technology, which could one day allow it to do away with the human drivers it contracts with.
Self-driving cars still have a long way to go — for example, they currently only work in good weather with well-defined streets. It’s only a matter of time before someone figures out how to make these systems more reliable. It’s going to have huge economic impact when that happens. There are an estimated 3.5 million truck drivers in the US, and many of those jobs could vanish in short order.
The trend toward increasing automation is going to continue over the coming years, it’s inevitable. What does that mean for all those people?
A robot does not strictly want anything yet, but the people who own the businesses want them to take over for human workers. Automation reduces the cost of production, so businesses invest in it. Right now that means robots and AI. Those who feel this will be detrimental to the middle class point out that the technology being developed now is considerably more capable than what we’ve dealt with in the past.
Manufacturing has long since disappeared as a substantial source of jobs in the developed world now that automation has taken over. It was the same story when farming automation took over a century ago. These populations have been shunted into service-oriented jobs, many of the same jobs that are now threatened by improved robotics and artificial intelligence. Some economists worry that technology is “destroying jobs faster than it is creating them.” With powerful computer vision, artificial intelligence, and humanoid robots just around the corner, it might not be long before more jobs than ever before are handed over to robots.
If this school of thought is right, more capable robots could further suppress income for already low-income workers. No one’s going to hire a human to pack boxes when a robot can do it better. The question is whether or not society will come up with new industries as a result of our increasing automation.
A great economic thinker once worried aloud that the deployment of new machinery would soon “totally exclude” the labor of workers. Thousands of people were on the verge of being out of work, and then what would they do? This line of reasoning probably sounds familiar because we hear people saying the same basic thing just a few paragraphs up, but this wasn’t a modern economist worrying about robots. It was Thomas Mortimer, the English writer and economist writing about automated sawmills in 1772’s “Elements of Commerce.”
From the very moment machines became capable of taking on a repetitive task with greater efficiency than a human, we’ve been gripped by a fierce existential worry about our own obsolescence. And indeed, automation has slowly but surely pushed people out of industries.
There’s a certain discomfort when we talk about a new innovation in robotics that seems aimed at taking over for a human worker. It’s undeniably cool when someone improves a humanoid robot that could so easily slip into our daily lives — after all, the world is designed around humans, so humanoid robots make sense. Maybe on some level that’s the goal, but the unending march of progress is not necessarily malicious.
Looking at the history of automation, the doomsday predictions have never come true. There’s never been an explosion of long-term unemployment because of it. Sure, people lose jobs, and that’s genuinely unfortunate. No one wants that, but automation frees humans from menial labor—the sort of jobs people would rather not do anyway. Letting robots do what humans used to do could improve everyone’s quality of life in the long-term as new industries and better jobs appear. If there’s any way for a business to make money with human workers, you can be sure they’ll find it.
This transition still requires humanity to work together — something we often stink at. Some believe we’re reaching a point where a developed society simply doesn’t need everyone to work. If that’s the case, do we use something like universal basic income to encourage volunteer work and entrepreneurism? A robot may come for your job one day, but maybe that could end up benefiting you. We just don’t know exactly how yet. The next few years are going to be interesting.
We’re covering next-generation robotics all this week; read the rest of our Robot Week stories for more. And be sure to check out our ExtremeTech Explains series for more in-depth coverage of today’s hottest tech topics.