Baxter, a new robot designed by Rethink Robotics to work alongside humans.

Credit: Rethink Robotics

The Automation Economy

May 24, 2013

Are robots coming — for your job? Kara Miller led a discussion about ingenuity and automation at Innovation Hub's first live panel. 

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Worried about robots taking over the economy? It may have already happened. If you’ve made a purchase online, used an ATM, or gone through self-checkout at the grocery, then you’ve participated in the growing automation economy. 

Assembly line workers in manufacturing have become increasingly replaced by machines.
Photo Credit: Innovation Hub

Workers Not Required

Automating jobs isn’t malicious, argues Andrew McAfee, co-author of “Race Against the Machine.” Instead, it’s about increasing productivity. Companies are formed in order to fill a hole in the market and satisfy a group of customers, not to employ people or create jobs. In the past, McAfee explains, employees have allowed companies to fulfill their mission. Today, those same employees may not be so necessary.

“Manufacturing in the U.S. is a large and growing industry,” he says. “That’s not the crisis. The crisis, to the extent there is one, is that every year U.S. manufacturing employs fewer and fewer people in absolute numbers.”

And these jobs are not all being outsourced, McAfee says. Instead, the trend continues even in countries like China with lower manufacturing costs — factories require fewer and fewer employees to meet the demand for their product. Unlike humans, machines don’t slow down, they don’t make many mistakes, and, most importantly, they don’t get hurt.

“What you find are machines that can do the jobs that are dangerous,” agrees Willy Shih, a professor at Harvard Business School. “That type of automation was a substitution of capital for labor, which contributed a great deal to the improvements in productivity.”

But don’t be so quick to lament the loss of jobs in factories and warehouses. Some are still in the human domain, like packaging objects for shipping. People understand by sight that they should grip a book, a stuffed animal, and a camera differently. This gives humans an edge over robots, but perhaps not for long. Robotics companies are already working on the tactile perception of robots — partially because it’s difficult to fill those warehouse jobs with human workers.

“Have you ever noticed that the jobs we romanticize are the ones we just lost?” McAfee asks. “Who ever thought that warehouse worker was such a fantastic job — until it goes.” 

Vecna Technologies thinks that we should introduce more automation to the health care industry.
Photo Credit: Vecna Tenchologies

What Will We Automate Next?

Think about how much easier it is to deposit your check at an ATM than with a bank teller. What about checking into the airport at a kiosk? These industries were automated for convenience. Daniel Theobald, CTO of Vecna Technologies, argues that automation actually saved these businesses by prioritizing the needs of their customers. In order to cut costs while decreasing errors and increasing satisfaction, Theobald thinks the health care industry should do the same.

“Just the fact that when I go to the hospital and I register, the nurse is across from me at the table, she’s taking my address information and typing it into the computer — she makes all kinds of mistakes,” Theobald says. “As soon as we put the patient at the kiosk and they’re entering their address for themselves, they know when they’ve got it right. That one factor alone, surprisingly, pays for self-service in a hospital within six months.”     

So is there anything that we can’t automate? What jobs and industries are safe from the intervention of robots? McAfee, at least, isn’t willing to make blanket predictions. He points out that just a few years ago, many scholars thought you couldn’t automate a car to drive in traffic. Fast-forward to the present, and the Google Car has been able to do just that.

“It hasn’t completely automated the work of driving a car, but within eight years it’s going to be able to handle just about everything that we do behind the wheel and lead to a lot fewer accidents and deaths on U.S. highways,” McAfee says. “The stuff that machines are never going to be good at seems very clear until they rise up and actually do these kinds of things.”

We're automating things never previously thought possible — like driving cars.
Photo Credit: Mark Doliner / Flickr Creative Commons

Living in the Automation Economy

Since there’s no way to tell which jobs machines will be able to do in the future, there’s only one way to protect your job, McAfee continues: traffic in ideas.

“I’ve never seen an entrepreneurial computer; I’ve never seen a creative one; I’ve never seen one that had any aesthetic sense; I still haven’t seen one that could write a long piece of prose,” he says.

And don’t fear the change, adds Rodney Brooks, founder of Rethink Robotics. People have been losing jobs to technology for hundreds of years — since scribes used to hand copy each book bought and sold.

“The history tells us we always change what we do,” Brooks says. “We adapt, we integrate ourselves with technology, and we do different things.”

WATCH: Innovation Hub's Live Panel Discussion

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