Robotic automation may replace human workers


Jenny Ries

Pepper is a robot capable of communicating with humans who resides at the Microsoft store at the Mall of America.

In today’s society, it is acknowledged that perfection is unattainable. Children are urged not to strive for perfect work, but rather for progress. Flaws are celebrated because everyone has them. There is no need for a task to be done 100% perfectly every time, because no human is able to accomplish that. Enter the robot. Robots do not require pay, nor do they need a safe work environment, or even to eat or rest, at least not in the way that humans do. Capable of working continuously for hours on end, all the while producing uniform, near-perfect work, robots have the potential to undermine human employment.

According to BBC, the implementation of robotic automation could have an impact on as much as 20 percent of working people worldwide, as concluded by a study done by the McKinsey Global Institute, which looked at 800 occupations in 46 countries. According to the BBC article, the McKinsey study also stated that robotic automation will affect wealthy countries differently than it will affect less wealthy ones, as it will be implemented more in countries with more substantial funds to put toward innovation. In line with this, the article pointed out that, since robotic automation may replace humans in occupations where college degrees are not a requisite, it will become more important for citizens of wealthier nations to be college-educated. Additionally, the study discovered that teachers, lawyers, bartenders, and doctors are unlikely to lose their jobs to robotic automation because those occupations are based on interactions between humans. In contrast, aspects of work done by accountants and paralegals, for example, can become automated fairly easily, according to the study.

Senior and Co-Chair of SPA’s Student Technology Committee Gabriel Konar-Steenberg said, “Right now, robots are really good at doing specialized mechanical and computational tasks, but humans still vastly outperform them when it comes to versatility or anything having to do with the “soft” cognitive skills of creativity, human interaction, anything having to do with feelings and emotions.”

In line with this, Dr. Kate Lockwood, Director of Computer Science and Engineering at SPA said, “[Robots] are good at any kind of repetitive task, especially a task that’s really clearly and easily defined and there isn’t a lot of variation. Robots are also good at things that maybe are a little dangerous or unpleasant for people to do. Robots aren’t going to complain about that. Robots are good at things that people find boring, because they’re not going to complain about that either. There are other things that require high levels of dexterity or judgement calls that robots aren’t quite there on yet, but we’re making a lot of progress in lots of different areas of robotics.”

As to why robots are useful as part of the workforce, Konar-Steenberg said, “The fundamental advantage of having robots work for you is that you only have to buy them once, and then (besides maintenance costs) you have free labor. Besides not having to pay robots a wage and provide them with benefits, they can work in much less hospitable conditions. We can already see this in extreme cases where using a human would be impossible or extremely expensive, like in space and ocean exploration, but there will probably be more mundane instances of this too. For example, if warehouses were completely robotic, they could save costs in heating and lighting, and they could probably pack things in tighter to store more goods or save on construction costs.”

I think that it’s not that necessarily people will be replaced by robots, it’s that robots will help them shift their duties.”

— Dr. Kate Lockwood

In terms of automation leading to unemployment, Lockwood said, “In manufacturing, there are a lot of jobs that have been replaced by technology. I think that… it will require fewer and fewer humans in certain sectors to operate, but that as technology evolves there will be also new careers that are created.”

According to an article in Forbes, “Artificial Intelligence Will Replace Tasks, Not Jobs,” implementing robotic automation in jobs has the potential to improve quality of work. The article also touched on how the implementation of robotic automation in certain jobs, specifically to do trivial work, could allow human workers to do the more meaningful aspects of a given occupation. In addition, according to another article in Forbes, “What Impact is Robotics Having On The Labor Market,” jobs previously occupied by humans have been transitioning to being done by technology for the past 200 years. Essentially, this is not a new phenomena.

“Robots have already led to unemployment, and this will continue. As long as it is cheaper to buy robots to do a task than to employ humans, as is already the case with some factory work, employers will tend to choose the robots unless they are otherwise incentivized…  In the end, we will probably need some sort of fundamental restructuring of the economy… we’ve weathered similar economic shifts before, such as the Industrial Revolution and the abolition of slavery. This one might be more drastic in terms of jobs it will ultimately affect, but it is not completely without precedent,” said Konar-Steenberg.

So what does this mean for people entering the workforce?

“I think that it’s not that necessarily people will be replaced by robots, it’s that robots will help them shift their duties. So it’s sort of like, who can work with the technology. Those are the people that will thrive in that kind of environment,” Lockwood said.

Originally published in the November 2018 edition of The Rubicon.