Let’s talk about robots. In the near future, robots will learn how to do more and more of the things that we humans are used to doing ourselves. Watching the progress of robotic technology over the last several years has caused a wild and so far mostly theoretical economic panic about the future of humans in the workplace. But despite the flood of articles suggesting that the human worker is doomed, robots are almost certainly not going to take your job anytime soon.
Nonetheless, we are approaching a tipping point in robotics. The population of industrial robots has been increasing rapidly over the years: by 2018, 1.3 million new robots will be installed in factories worldwide, an increase of 30% over the number of industrial robots we have today. We’ve also seen robotics startups attracting significantly more interest from venture capitalists, with robotics companies receiving $341 million in funding in 2014, a 36% increase over 2013.
Even companies that aren’t generally thought of as robotics companies are making major investments in robotic technology, presumably operating under the assumption that it will be a key area in which to be established. In addition to its autonomous car program, Google acquired seven robotics companies over just a few months in 2013 to provide a foundation for a new robotics division. And just last week, Toyota announced a $1 billion, five-year commitment to helping robotic technology transition from research to consumer products. With worldwide spending on robotics expected to pass $60 billion by 2025, it seems clear that forward-thinking businesses need to be thinking about their strategy for incorporating robotics to gain and maintain competitive advantage.
All of this money pouring into robotics is resulting in the rapid robotification of everything from airplanes to cars to lawnmowers. This isn’t a bad thing. These robotic tools make our lives better, especially in the long-term macroeconomic sense. In the short term, however, increasingly capable robots do seem like they could cause some problems for workers with an interest in job security.
In the manufacturing industry, Rethink Robotics is selling its Baxter and Sawyer robots to small companies that need affordable and flexible automation. To some extent, Baxter and Sawyer are able to replace human workers doing simple, repetitive tasks, like machine tending. Amazon uses a growing army of mobile robots for warehouse automation, which can replace the humans who used to pick online orders from row after row of shelves.
There are many other disruptions going on with connections to robotics that might be considered threatening to traditional workers. Consider the so-called “gig economy,” for example, which is enabled by software, systems, and artificial intelligence and machine learning technology that’s similar to what’s used in robotics. It’s important to understand that these systems are not actually robots (because they lack physical bodies). But they are forcing similar changes in society that have the potential to fundamentally change the nature of work.
Although there are robots available now that have the potential to replace workers (or specific worker tasks), any kind of robot-driven fundamental change is going to take a very long time to come about. In the near future, robots entering human workplaces don’t represent much of a threat to jobs. Over at least the next decade, technological challenges mean that robots are most likely to have a significant impact on just a few specific job sectors, and there is no reason to assume that such an impact will necessarily be a negative one for humans.
There are currently 600,000 jobs in the U.S. manufacturing industry that are unfilled due to lack of qualified applicants, suggesting that an increase in robot labor would have a minimal impact on employment. And while Rethink’s robots can replace humans at simple, repetitive tasks, the intent is to free those humans up to do more complex things, making the workforce more efficient and more competitive overall. The situation is similar in warehouse logistics, where another 600,000 jobs are vacant. Rather than replacing human workers entirely, Amazon’s robots take over the walking and carrying part of the job, significantly improving both working conditions and efficiency. One final example is agriculture, where there is ample evidence that in western countries, there are nowhere near enough people willing to do the work required to produce enough food to meet demand at sustainable rates of pay. Companies such as Blue River Technology are developing robots that can do the most difficult and tedious farming tasks, such as thinning, where humans were previously lying on their bellies on a flatbed trailer while being towed slowly through a field, removing unwanted plants.
Elder care is likely to be the next job sector to see an infusion of robotic labor, and we desperately need it. A demographic shift over the next several decades will result in the population of humans over 65 increasing from 13% in 2010 to 21% by 2050 in the United States. In Europe and Asia, the shift is even more dramatic, where the majority of people in Japan, South Korea and Germany are expected to be older than 50 by 2050. There simply will not be enough humans to take care of other humans, and this doesn’t lead to a situation where robots are taking the jobs of caregivers, but rather one where better care is available to more people. At this point, the Japanese government sees practical robotic technology one of the best ways to keep their society together:
As the declining birth rate, aging society, and shrinking population of productive age advance, robot technologies possess the potential for solving social challenges, such as resolving labor shortages, releasing people from overwork, and improving productivity in a variety of sectors, ranging from production in the manufacturing industry, to medical services and nursing care, and to agriculture, construction and infrastructure maintenance.
In some sectors and in some (if not most) parts of the world, robots are going to be necessary as worker replacements because there aren’t going to be enough workers to do the jobs needed. In other sectors, it’s worth thinking of robots as tools, just like any other technology. A recent study that examined 140 years worth of census data came to the conclusion that technology not only consistently creates more jobs than it replaces, but also enables worker transitions from hard, dangerous, and dull jobs to more fulfilling jobs that involve service, luxuries, and knowledge.
These transitions don’t happen overnight, of course, and inevitably, workers will find themselves lacking the necessary skills to effectively transition from one type of job to another. Fighting the technology itself is a not a productive reaction to this situation. Instead, we need to use and improve societal structures (like labor laws and closer attention to industry regulation) to ensure that we get the outcome that’s best for society as a whole.