Robots freely roaming Mars? Sure, no problem. Robots taking over Earth? Not so fast.
The common reprise of “robots are stealing our jobs!” isn’t far from reality. Think of the empty Detroit assembly lines or the dwindling number of bank tellers. New “robot jobs” have eliminated numerous labor positions and are heading to conquer many more.
According to a Pew Research study released this month, 48 percent of experts “envision a future in which robots and digital agents have displaced significant numbers of both blue- and white-collar workers—with many expressing concern that this will lead to vast increases in income inequality, masses of people who are effectively unemployable, and breakdowns in the social order.”
Doesn’t sound like too promising of a future.
Luckily for us, there’s a flipside to that opinion: “The other half of the experts who responded to this survey (52 percent) expect that technology will not displace more jobs than it creates by 2025. To be sure, this group anticipates that many jobs currently performed by humans will be substantially taken over by robots or digital agents by 2025. But they have faith that human ingenuity will create new jobs, industries, and ways to make a living, just as it has been doing since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.”
That makes a slightly less-dismal forecast. But is it true that robots in the workforce can potentially be better at everything? Is there anything, theoretically, they can’t—or shouldn’t—do?
For instance, take eldercare. It’s an occupation you wouldn’t necessarily think a robot could replicate with sympathy. Low pay for this laborious work coupled with the growing population of senior citizens is fueling intensive research and development for “robot care.”
“My lonely, disabled patient’s life would be improved by a robot caregiver,” Louise Aronson, associate professor of geriatrics at UCSF, writes in The New York Times. “At breakfast, the robot could chat with her about the weather or news…. Or maybe it would provide her with a large-print electronic display of a book, the lighting just right for her weakened eyes. After a while the robot would say, ‘I wonder whether we should take a break from reading now and get you dressed. Your daughter’s coming to visit today.’”
Aronson admits that robot caregivers are not a simple solution: “Are there ethical issues we will need to address? Of course. But I can also imagine my patient’s smile when the robot says these words, and I suspect she doesn’t smile much in her current situation, when she’s home alone, hour after hour and day after day.”
The rise of robot jobs doesn’t stop there. You also have the invasion of the robot bellhop A.L.O. the Botlr, which reaches a brisk four miles per hour to whisk the morning paper right to your hotel door. Not to mention the robot artist eDavid that creates strikingly accurate copies of complex paintings, potentially producing even more starving artists. Pharmacists, fast-food workers, and taxi (or Uber) drivers are endangered, too.
Then there are the really far-out futuristic scenarios, like robot swarms! Or the ultimate technology mash-up with the BioAssembly Bot that will assemble and 3D print a human heart. (Mind. Officially. Blown.)
Robot and Human Collaboration
So what will the future really look like as humans and robots co-exist, especially in the workplace?
“I’m one of the techno-optimists,” says Autodesk CEO Carl Bass in a SXSW presentation on the future of the robot workforce. “I believe that we do need to change things. But I also think we need to make sure we’re not blind to what we’re creating. We need to be aware that we are creating a place where employment will not be the same. I do have the firm belief that, with our creativity and imagination in an increasingly roboticized world, we will find harmony with smart machines and robots.”
Autodesk technology futurist Jordan Brandt takes it another step. He says humans will have to play a part in robotics and manufacturing with high-value work that only, well, people can do. Without their human friends innovating, robots can never improve.
“You’re now going to be training a robot to help you do your job,” Brandt recently told the Chicago Tribune. “It’s not about being replaced by automation; it’s about collaborating…. (People are) the ones who can make all these machines more productive.”
And, just last week, David H. Autor of MIT Department of Economics released a fascinating new paper, giving us our best hope yet. In it, he details the incredible history of computerization and employment growth within the purview of philosopher Michael Polanyi’s paradox in which “our tacit knowledge of how the world works often exceeds our explicit understanding.”
“Challenges to substituting machines for workers in tasks requiring adaptability, common sense, and creativity remain immense,” Autor writes. Maybe these attributes will trump all.
There’s no question. The robot revolution is upon us, and we may just get along.