The Robots Are Coming! Are You Ready?

Robots will replace humans in the workforce, but we may be their masters

Illustration of a robot and a man riding the subway

Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff 

We’re afraid of robots. Or, more accurately, you are. Me? I love them and if I could have a robot writing this column for me right now, literally sitting in my seat at work, tapping away on my Surface Pro while my co-workers gawked, I’d do it.

It’s not that I don’t love to write. I do, but I know I would enjoy watching the robot struggle to craft a pithy sentence or an insightful analogy. If it failed, would my writer-bot occasionally stop and bang its titanium head on the desk? One can only hope.

In any case, that’s the goal for me, to have a robot companion; one who can, on occasion, step in and do my job.

For most other normal people, this is a nightmare scenario.

Last week, I spotted a robot nightmare story that I’m pretty sure I’ve read in one form or another multiple times over the last twenty years: 20 million factory jobs will be lost to robots by 2030. The language isn’t particularly provocative, but the message is stark and, I’m sure, struck fear not just in factory workers, but anyone who worries about being automated right out of a job.

20 million sounds bad, but I’ve heard worse. A 2013 study put the number at 47% of all jobs.

By now I suspect you’ve bludgeoned your Roomba into an early grave, but that response may be premature.

Goodbye Jobs

Robotic assembly line
Getty Images

The Oxford Economics study the story cites, titled “How Robots Change the World,” does paint a rather bleak picture of the future, noting that “each newly installed robot displaces 1.6 manufacturing workers.” Even worse, automation tends to impact lower-income regions at a much higher rate, displacing nearly twice as many jobs per robot, according to the report.

You just threw your Amazon Echo out the window, didn’t you?

It’s easy to overreact to these numbers when you don’t know the full ways in which robots will impact the human workforce. However, buried under the headlines are some important facts about the rise of robots (and the not so precipitous fall of humankind).

As I mentioned, robotization/automation tends to mostly impact factory work because, obviously, those jobs are often the most repetitive, dangerous and do not always demand the highest level of skill or precision (when they do, factories employ humans – see iPhone manufacturing as a current example).

The other reality is where the manufacturing jobs are. A 2015 study found that the U.S. was second only to China in manufacturing output. But that stat distorts a workforce reality. According to the Brookings Institute, over 128 million people in China do manufacturing work, which dwarfs the 16 million doing similar work in the U.S. Put simply, the robots are coming for your jobs, but they’re going after Chinese manufacturing jobs first.

The other thing most media reports on the study fail to mention is how robotization can, according to the researchers, “boost productivity and economic growth, generating new employment opportunities at a rate comparable to the pace of job destruction.”

Robot ping pong

I’ve spoken to many robotics companies over the years and the goal is never replace humans. Whether it’s home or industrial robotics, the goal is usually, “Give people a break from difficult, dirty and dangerous tasks.” It's why your Roomba exists: Not to put house cleaners out of work, but to let them focus on more detail-oriented tasks. Many robotics companies are putting this approach to work today.

Robots on High

Tel Aviv skyline at sunset in Israel
 Getty Images

If you were standing on the street in Tel Aviv and looked up, you might spot a pair of over-sized robot arms rapidly cleaning skyscraper windows. Skyline Robotics has been selling its robo-window washers to building maintenance companies in Israel, but instead of replacing human window washers, they train them as robot supervisors. Skyline CEO Yaron Schwarcz told CNN that it makes sense to hire the window washers because they have "the best experience to be the supervisors for these robots."

Obviously, the window washers have to learn new skills to manage these fearless tech wonders, but that’s been the story of automation for almost half a century. Granted, it’s also been the concern.

Back in 1981, the U.S. Congress Office of Technology and Automation organized a Workshop on the Social Impacts of Robotics. At the time, industrial robots were largely stationary and not exactly precision instruments, but legislators had enough foresight to envision a very different future and organized science, tech, academic, and manufacturing leaders to address “possible public policy issues of interest to Congress that may arise from the use of [robotics technology].” In addition to the social and economic impact of robotic automation, the group worried about potential job displacement, loss, and shifting: 

"Will the United States experience a long-term rise the the real unemployment rate due to the introduction of robotics and other automations? If so, will these effects be differentially severe, by geographical location, social class, education level, race, sex, or other characteristics? What might be the employment penalty of automating?”

Since this was just a workshop, the group didn’t publish any specific recommendations (what did you expect — this was a Congressional workshop). However, they did offer a key insight, one that resonates to this day. 

The group identified the need for a “technologically literate work force,” which, they noted, “would be less likely to resist the introduction of robots and automation technology.”

It’s not so much that the robots are coming (because they are), but how fast they arrive. As Andrew Stettner, Senior Fellow at The Century Foundation, wrote in 2013:

“What matters is the pace of these changes—if they evolve over time, workers and communities have the chance to adapt to a new economy; but if they happen rapidly, large numbers of workers can get displaced without the skills needed to qualify for other available jobs.”

Ultimately, we have a choice. Wait for the robots to come and take our jobs or learn as much as we can about them and prepare to become their masters.

Now go get some duct tape and see if you can patch up your Roomba.