Robots ate my lunch

In this age of advancing automation, software, and robotics the burning question is, “Will the workforce of humans eventually be replaced by robots?”  And by robots, it’s understood to mean some form of automation and/or software – not necessarily a human-looking automaton.


This concern about advances in technology displacing workers has been with us a long time and in many forms. When a technology improvement comes along often it is with the expectation that by improving the process, the cost of production will go down.  Whether due to reduced scrap, a more efficient, or convenient process, it often means that fewer people are needed to do the same job.  By the same logic, the producer now has a higher production capacity at virtually the same cost.  If they are trying to grow in the marketplace, a more efficiently built item that costs less is a good thing.


But back to the jobs issue. Historically with every marked advance; automobiles, automated machining, ATMs, desktop computers, there has been a net gain in jobs – usually at a higher value. The guy that used to put the wheels on the car is now doing welding, CNC machines are so cost effective, that most of their value is in the machining algorithms (software), bank tellers are no longer glorified money changers, but help set up accounts, both business and personal (and that’s not even counting the whole new industry building and maintaining those ATMs), and desktop computers have eliminated the old fashioned secretary pool, transcribing dictation and having to travel long distances to have a meeting.  Plus, personal computers have spawned a software revolution of apps that help us perform all of these ground level business functions and so much more.


So far, the jobs trend is positive – but with a caveat. The advances in efficiency tend to be those that people aren’t great with since they are monotonous, beyond our mathematical capacity, dangerous, or dirty. We should be glad that remote cameras crawl along sewer pipes to inspect them, that machines take on the task of sorting mail, and airplanes have automated landing software for difficult weather conditions.  These things make our lives better and safer.  So where does this fear that robots will take over our jobs come from? Part of the issue is that it’s easy to draw a straight line from a technology improvement and the jobs that are impacted by that improvement.  What is really hard is to identify and quantify the new types and quantities of jobs that need to be created to accommodate that technology improvement, especially since the new jobs may not even be named, yet.


Here’s a simple thought experiment. There is no question that there are lots of computer programmers in the world (some estimates put it around 10 – 15 million). Those are millions of jobs that did not exist 50 years ago.   Yet, when was the last time you saw a headline, “Massive Computer Programmer Shortfall”?  Demand for specific jobs just doesn’t command the attention of media outlets and it’s a little harder to draw that straight lie between job creation and a specific industry.  After all, programming could apply to games, robotics, phones, or just automation in general.  This disparity in reporting employment downside vs. employment opportunities is just the nature of how we report things. And it helps feed the narrative of fear.

Automation (robotics in general) do have an increasing place in our world.  So let’s look at things that automation (both software and hardware) do well, that people probably shouldn’t be trying to do.

Handling large databases of information:

Things like Wikipedia, Web MD, ERP Systems, Automated factories should definitely be handled by software.  Keeping in mind, of course, that there must still be a human somewhere in the process that creates the structure of the database, the rules of use and how to handle queries as well as maintenance and upgrades. Nonetheless humans just can’t store as much in their memories as computers can. Remember, though, It still takes a human to design the database so that it is useful.

Dangerous Games:

It should be no surprise that warfare is increasingly automated.  “Smart” bombs, drones, surface to air missiles, shoulder-fired “tank-killers” along with radar and lidar enhancements.  These technologies allow us to go to war without putting as many of our soldiers in harm’s way.  This may reduce the number of foot soldiers, but at the same time it increases the need for operators of this equipment, software and hardware upgrades, testing, and continuous development.

Getting Down in the Dirt:

Certain jobs are inherently dirty, dangerous, or hazardous to your health: Mining, handling chemicals, working with radioactive material, testing viruses.  These are already well down the automation path. Mobile autonomous robotic versions of the equipment used in these industries have been worked out. Driverless tractors follow a GPS signal, excavators have a programmable home position which speeds up their operation, and mobile cameras are designed for pipe inspection. These are examples of repetitive or difficult tasks that are done better with a little automation.


Perhaps the most authoritative description of our “robot future” comes from Frank Levy, an MIT labor economist who wrote,” If your job requires thinking on your feet, [it’s] going to be around for a while.  While it’s easy for machines to perform pattern-based tasks, humans are far better when interaction with other people is required. Where automation is expected to make inroads, it’s more likely that [a] machine would only perform aspects of jobs currently done by humans – rather than take them over wholesale.” Professor Levy has captured the reality of the situation quite well. If you combine this with the fact that about 70% of the GDP (at least in the US) belongs to the service economy you’re probably safe for a very long time.

We should expect to see the continued automation and connectivity of our world. But far from being something to fear, it’s generally benign.  Markets are pretty good at weeding out the useless from the useful. Just keep in mind, it is people designing and building automation into our world – so it’s up to us, the consumers, to decide if the latest automated doohickey is really worthwhile, or just another colossal waste of time. Buy accordingly.

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