It could be said that some innovations are a double-edged sword. Smartphones, for example, are extremely handy except for the fact that we’ve seen an increase in traffic fatalities as more and more people become distracted by whatever it is being displayed on the tiny screen. But what about robotics? Robots of all shapes and sizes have a direct impact on our everyday lives even now, and that influence is only growing as time goes on.
Your car, computer, phone, and even the chair you’re sitting in were probably built by one or several robots. What was once an industry driven by human craftsmanship is now driven by fabrication technology with only minor human supervision. The human role in manufacturing has become one of quality control more than anything else in many facilities. The required skills for a worker is also changing. Now, in addition to being able to understand how what you’re building works, you also need to understand how the robots doing the assembly are intended to operate. We’re approaching an age where robots are building robots to build our products.
This isn’t the only market in which robotics is putting workers at risk of losing their jobs. Here are five examples of how robots are potentially taking over the job market.
Expanding on the definition of robot for a moment, we could easily include customer service centers and grocery stores. Self-help lanes are growing in popularity in the states because they cost less to operate than a manned lane. One supervising clerk can oversee six or more lanes where seven would be required otherwise. Change is dispensed and a the customer is thanked without ever having to interact with a human being.
To some, this is a convenience while others might see it as a slow-down in the process. I can’t recall how many times I’ve made a trip to the store to find six self-help lanes and one manned lane open. The manned lane had a line around the corner while the self-help lanes were crowded and yet seemingly slower moving. The reason for this is that even though these lanes are becoming more popular, the average American doesn’t quite have the pace of scanning and bagging down. In a sense, this money saver for the company may actually be creating a bigger inconvenience for the customers. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like anything that could reduce costs this significantly will be going anywhere any time soon.
Eventually I can see a simple change dispensing robotic mechanism expanding into something much more. A robot that bridges the gap between the conveyor belt and the scanner, then bags your items is inevitable. It will happen. It’s only a matter of time.
Anyone who appreciates the beauty of a classic car will undoubtedly understand the impact robotics have had on the motor vehicle industry. Cars were once made on an assembly line by hand. Every detail of the car was overseen by one or more people, and you had an expectation of quality. Since that time, the typical car has slowly lost the human touch and has become more of a machine built by machines than anything else. Yes, this is a cost saver to the manufacturer, but pretty much anyone living in Detroit will tell you that this innovation is a double-edged sword. Pulling a vehicle off the line after years of working would be a moment of pride for a factory worker proud of the machine they built — a sentiment shared with the character Clint Eastwood played in Gran Torino.
That isn’t to say that these cartesian and gantry robots can replace human capability, but they have undoubtedly had a hand in the job market as we see it today.
To many, robots and blue-collar workers are competing in the US every bit as much as we are with the rest of the world. A company can boast not having outsourced manufacturing by cutting costs at home, but in the end it’s the American worker who suffers the most.
Longshoremen in New Jersey have been in protest against what they see is a great threat to the already-dwindling number of jobs available at the docks. An automated terminal would allow shipping companies to cut costs and avoid the risks of an often human-hazardous job. This also means that these humans would potentially lose their already at-risk jobs.
The battle being fought in NJ by the International Longshoremen’s Foundation is the first of potentially many. This would be the first fully automated port terminal in the world, making it a proof of concept that other shipping centers would undoubtedly follow should this be a success.
This process may not technically qualify as robotic, but it does have a direct impact on the job market as we see it today. Voice Response Units (VRU) are available in some form to virtually every call center in the world. You might recognize the familiar robotic or pre-recorded voice asking you to tell it your problem, press a certain key to be routed to various offices, or even answer your question without ever passing you through to your desired party. These units are becoming more complex and capable as more companies turn over their information to the machine in hopes that an automated answer will quell the amount of customers ultimately being passed through to the significantly more costly call center.
I’ve worked in call centers for over 10 years. During that time, I’ve heard numbers ranging anywhere from $20/minute to $60/minute when asked how much a typical customer service call costs a company. Even a simple inquiry comes with an overwhelming cost when compared to an automation system that runs out of a small closet. Hundreds of calls can be taken and released without ever being passed through to a customer service representative.
While these units may be incapable of relaying any sense of caring or human ability, they are being programmed to handle virtually anything and everything the customer may want. Ultimately, this comes at the cost of jobs. This is another case where American workers are not only faced with competition abroad, but at home as well.
I’ll wrap this list up with an industry you might never expect to be touched by robotic hands. The hotel industry may well be the next in line for this automation.
Yotel New York features a robotic luggage handler that works around the clock and never needs a tip. Where a staff of three or four might be required around the clock, a robot can work more efficiently and without taking a single break.
Fans of the sci-fi genre might appreciate the notion of a hotel entirely run by robots, though I’m sure the staff of the hotels of the future may not.
How Do You Prepare?
I’m not going to predict that blue-collar jobs are going to be tossed out the window any time in the near future. The premise of this article is to give some insight into exactly how robotics have slowly inched their way into the workplace, making work more efficient while cutting the required staffing levels at various companies. Perhaps the best way to prepare for the future is to train today for the jobs you see being around tomorrow.
An assembly line worker may do well to take night courses and train on how to operate and repair the machines that threaten their jobs today. Like Charlie’s father in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, he won back his old job by being the person responsible for repairing the machine that puts the cap on the toothpaste.
Technology is growing by leaps and bounds in what would appear to be an exponential growth. The advances we’ve made in the past decade dwarf the ones of the decade before it. In 20 years, imagine where we’ll be, and what the job market might look like. The best way to prepare for that future is by training today for what you believe will be available tomorrow. We no longer live in a world where someone is expected to have one career from the day they turn 18 to the day they retire.
What is the Future of Robotics?
In 2004, Helen Greiner (Chairman and Cofounder of iRobot, Corp.) shared a prediction with Engadget that in the next 30 years, household chores would be a thing of the past. While something akin to Sonny from the movie I, Robot might be quite a bit further away, having the dusting, vacuuming, dishes, and other repetitive chores done by a robotic member of the household might not be so far-fetched.
The South Korean government has predicted that by 2018, surgery will routinely be carried out by robots. Currently, surgeons use robotic instruments to more accurately carry out small, detailed operations. I can hardly imagine trusting my insides to a machine, but who knows what might happen in the next six years to convince the world otherwise?
As for me, I can only hope that artificial intelligence hasn’t reached a point where my own job is put at risk. I rather love writing and studying technology. After all, someone has to keep an eye on the machines before Skynet becomes self-aware.
Photo by: Chris Pirillo