The winners and losers of the Robot Economy
As we have already seen, robots are coming and they’re coming soon. They will change our economy and the world of work for good. That’s not necessarily a bad thing and the working environment may well become more interesting as a result. After all, mundane jobs will be done by robots, leaving more inspiring opportunities that robots cannot solve to people. TIME magazine recently explored who would be the winners and losers in the new robot economy. We can already see this to some extent as TIME explains. Examples given include how airport ticket counters are now “manned” by machines rather than by people that help them check in. Also, people search online for holidays rather than taking a trip to the local travel agent’s office. Machines, robots are slowly but surely taking the place of people.
Writing for TIME in 2013, David Von Drehle explains that people do still have a distinct advantage over robots in many regards. Not everything can be mechanised in this way, and there are some decisions that it is difficult to programme robots to be able to make effectively. For example, in the world of distribution, Drehle argues that even if robots can be programmed to drive trucks shipments can be very challenging:
“Every shipment presents a new piece of an ever changing puzzle: how to pack all sorts of stuff from long steel rods and bundles of lumber to barbecue grills and light bulbs neatly into outbound trucks”.
The problems are different every time, making it difficult to be able to pre-prepare a robot to be able to handle them. However, as Drehle explains, on the other hand robots have advantages over people, such as, you probably won’t come across a robot taking a sick day or wanting vacation time at short notice. Or getting into conflicts with other robots on the team.
Drehle presents information provided in a study by MIT and Harvard economists which has looked into how the economy may be restructured and how automation may impact on the employment of people. This study has shown that jobs that can be pinned down to a set of rules that follow logic or statistical models then the job could be replaced by a robot. According to the study this includes jobs such as frying burgers, printing boarding passes or filling out tax returns. These types of jobs will be the losers in the robot economy. Equally it has been shown that robots could be used in jobs like teaching, sales, nursing, journalism and stock trading.
However, some jobs will survive the so called “Great Restructuring” (Drehle, 2013). According to the study, the jobs that will remain will be those that focus on:
“Solving unstructured problems, working with new information and carrying out non-routine tasks”.
Any jobs that cannot be programmed and require creative thinking will not be able to be performed by robots. As Drehle explains, robots will be unable to do activities such as devise corporate strategy, fix plumbing problems, design buildings, or even do something seemingly fairly straight forward such as style hair. This means that hairdressers, plumbers, architects and CEOs should be safe from robots for the time being.
Robots and people will work as collaborators
While all of this seems exciting and imminent, actually as Drehle explains it can take a long time to be able to programme a robot to carry out certain types of activities that for people are seemingly fairly simple to perform. The example provided of this is harvesting fruit, which a researcher at the Robotics Institute of Carnegie Mellon University is trying to do. This has been a slow and laborious process, and in fact the researcher, Sanjiv Singh is finding that robots and people are more likely to work as collaborators than robots completely replacing people. In his eyes Drehle reports that robots will take on jobs that are mindless, risky and unclean while people will still need to carry out the more challenging tasks.
The time when robots replace people to carry out dull tasks is already on us to some degree, and this will continue in the foreseeable future. Humans will continue to collaborate with robots in the short to medium term. However, Drehle points out that the time that robots replace people altogether may well still be a long way off. There are many questions to be answered such as what happens when machines fail, and there are no answers to these difficult challenges yet.
Additional resource: Video made by Discovery channel mapping the impact of robots in society.
The Intelligent Series On The Robot Economy Part 1
Paula Newton is a business writer, editor and management consultant with extensive experience writing and consulting for both start-ups and long established companies. She has ten years management and leadership experience gained at BSkyB in London and Viva Travel Guides in Quito, Ecuador, giving her a depth of insight into innovation in international business. With an MBA from the University of Hull and many years of experience running her own business consultancy, Paula’s background allows her to connect with a diverse range of clients, including cutting edge technology and web-based start-ups but also multinationals in need of assistance. Paula has played a defining role in shaping organizational strategy for a wide range of different organizations, including for-profit, NGOs and charities. Paula has also served on the Board of Directors for the South American Explorers Club in Quito, Ecuador.