Table of Contents:
- a. Advancements in Power and Mobility
- b. Advancements in Sensing Technology and Artificial Intelligence
- a. Warehousing
- b. Shipping and Delivery Services
- c. The Driverless Revolution
- a. Manufacturing
- b. 3D Printing
- a. Farming
- b. Mining
- a. Doctors
- b. Nurses and Elder Care Workers
- a. What Jobs Are Safe?
- b. The Net Loss of Human Jobs
- a. The Unhappy Scenario
- b. The Happier Scenario
Sophisticated, humanoid robots as featured in such movies as RoboCop and Terminator may not be with us just yet—but we shouldn’t let this fool us into thinking that we are not already in the incipient stages of the robot age. The fact is that rudimentary robots and other automated technologies have already been with us for several years, and advances in computing power, artificial intelligence and materials are even now quickly scaling up the range and functionality that our robots are capable of.
RoboCop and Terminator notwithstanding, robots already have a significant impact on our lives, and this impact will only increase as the technology advances. And one of the biggest impacts here has to do with the world of work, and the economy more generally. Specifically, robots have already shown themselves to be capable of numerous jobs traditionally carried out by people, and as the technology advances the range and sophistication of the jobs subsumed by robots will only grow.
Now, the story of technology taking over human jobs is nothing new. Indeed, the loss of jobs has occurred every time a major new technology has been introduced, from the plow, to the power loom, to the steam engine, to the computer. In the past, though, the technologies that have usurped human jobs have also led to the growth of new jobs (normally requiring more advanced skills) that have ultimately offset, and even outstripped, the jobs that were lost originally.
With robotic technology, though, there is something new under the sun. Specifically, many of the new jobs that robotics will create will themselves be capable of being carried out by robots—largely due to the sophistication of the technology. What’s more, as robotics advances, the range of new jobs that are capable of being carried out by robots will only grow. I think we can see where this is going: fewer and fewer jobs for people.
In his new book Jobocalypse: The End of Human Jobs and How Robots Will Replace Them entrepreneur and writer Ben Way takes a look at how robots have already come to replace many human jobs, and how coming advances promise to intensify this trend and extend it to virtually every industry we can think of from custodial and maintenance services; to the supply chain; to transportation; to security services; to manufacturing; to construction; to farming and fishing; to mining; to retail and hospitality; to health care; to education; to the military and policing; and even the shadow economy.
Though Way does not predict that robots will come to replace all human jobs (the creative industries, as well as jobs that require strategic planning and decision-making should be safe for some time to come) he does predict that upwards of 70% of traditional jobs will be replaced by robots within the next 30 years. On the bright side, this new efficiency will cause the prices of goods and services to plummet. On the not so bright side, there will be fewer and fewer employment opportunities through which to afford goods and services even at cut rate prices.
There are two possible outcomes here, according to the author. The first possibility is that mass unemployment will take hold, and the growing rift between the rich and the poor will continue to deepen, until massive social unrest becomes a real threat (not so good). The second possibility (considerably better) is that governments will step in and ensure that those who do lose their jobs are given the training they need to land the few new jobs that emerge, while everyone who does continue to hold a job will take a cut in their hours, thus allowing for the continuance of full employment, or the next thing to it.
Whichever route we, and our governments, decide to take will determine how the robotic age will unfold. Should we choose the former we can expect a robotic dystopia; should we choose the latter we can expect a better world where people are freed up to spend an increasing share of their time in creative and recreational pursuits of their choosing.
What follows is a full executive summary of Jobocalypse: The End of Human Jobs and How Robots Will Replace Them by Ben Way.
PART I: THE CURRENT STATE OF ROBOTICS (AND WHERE IT IS HEADING)
Some robots are already fairly sophisticated, but there are still a few things that are holding them back from achieving the status of a RoboCop or a Terminator (though, as we shall see, these barriers are being eroded quickly). Let’s begin by way of looking at what robots can do, and where they are improving even now.
1. What Robots Are Good At
Currently, robots have the computing power and range of mobility to make them very good at performing relatively straightforward tasks in a controlled and predictable environment (loc. 150, 156). Thus robots are already quite capable of performing simple tasks like floor cleaning, lawn-mowing, pool-cleaning, and manufacturing goods (all of which we shall encounter below).
Nevertheless, because robots have, until now, been relatively expensive, this has limited the kinds of straightforward tasks that they are economically feasible for. When it comes to manufacturing, for instance, robots have mainly been limited to manufacturing big ticket items, like cars (loc. 150).
Here’s a short clip of robots at work manufacturing a BMW:
Though robots are still relatively expensive, the cost of our current generation of robots is dropping quickly, and thus we are on the cusp of seeing them used much more widely for simple tasks—including manufacturing (more on this soon).
2. Where Robots Are Improving
The robots of the future will have the potential to do far more than simple tasks like manufacture goods, though. This will be made possible by coming advances in two areas in particular: 1) advancements in power systems and mobility technology; and 2) advancements in sensing technology and artificial intelligence. Let us now take a look at the advancements currently being made in these areas, and those that are on the horizon.
a. Advancements in Power and Mobility
We shall begin with the power and mobility side of things. Currently, robots rely mainly on electric motors for their power source—whether built in, or housed separately (loc. 172). Now, the most advanced robots to date have been able to achieve a fairly impressive range of mobility and versatility with these motors. This can be attested to by the following video, that features the robot Atlas, a creation of the robotic company Boston Dynamics.
Atlas (the live demonstration begins at the 45 second mark):
As impressive as these robots are, they still have several limitations when it comes to both mobility and versatility. And the reason for this is that electric motors just aren’t compact, efficient and powerful enough to allow robots to achieve the kind of full mobility and versatility that we would hope for (loc. 172).
Nevertheless, advances are currently being made that promise to change this—and soon. The fields in which these advances are being made include battery technology; fuel cells; computing efficiency; and especially new materials that operate with new and improved power actuators (loc. 169-81).
With regards to this last, advancements here promise to address both power and versatility issues. As Way explains, “in order to try and solve the limitations of actuators, some very clever scientists are working with advanced materials. We now have artificial muscles that can contract in the presence of electro-active polymers, basically electricity, or heat. Even though some of these new technologies can deliver relatively strong responses at low energy levels, the amount they actually contract is not enough to perform useful work… Humanity is a good ten years away from this new technology’s incorporation into products, but when it is entirely incorporated by then, the face of robotics will be changed forever” (loc. 181).
b. Advancements in Sensing Technology and Artificial Intelligence
So robots are in the process of becoming much more mobile and versatile, but what about the sensing and intelligence side of things? These skills are needed so that robots can operate in changing and unpredictable environments, which is where they currently have the most difficulty (loc. 150). However, these technologies too are advancing quickly (loc. 153).
*For prospective buyers: To get a good indication of how this (and other) articles look before purchasing, I’ve made several of my past articles available for free. Each of my articles follows the same form and is similar in length (15-20 pages). The free articles are available here: Free Articles