Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, the planet is abuzz with humans designing, organizing, manufacturing, servicing, transporting, communicating, trading, buying, and selling
Think of all the economic activity around you on a day-to-day basis, things that may seem commonplace but nevertheless require a great deal of coordination and ‘work.’ Ms. Rifkin who owns the local flower shop gets her delivery of tulips, Mr. Friedman’s insurance claim for his colonoscopy is processed, petrol stations have their pumps replenished over night so the millions of drivers on our roads can refuel on their way to or from the hundreds of thousands of different office locations, retail stores, factories and warehouses where they complete a myriad of professions. Look outside your window and you will have an idea of just how the global economy is a marvel of complexity, people talking on mobile phones, wearing clothes, shoes and make-up made on the other side of the world.
Now think about how many of the world’s professions have been or could be replaced by automation or robotics. It is highly probable that we will “see robots doing the jobs of humans in manufacturing plants (it is already the case), in grocery stores, in pharmacies, driving cars and making deliveries.”
But it is also highly probable that much of the work robots will do… will actually augment human labor not displace it. MIT professor of economics, David Autor believes the media vastly oversells the degree to which technology will displace highly skilled workers. He believes changing technology will instead complement these workers’ skills and help them to become more productive. In a new paper that accompanied Autor’s speech at Jackson Hole last Friday he actually reflects: “on how recent advances in artificial intelligence and robotics should shape our thinking about the likely trajectory of occupational change and employment growth.” (RobotEnomics emphasis added).
Autor considers the oft quoted meme that the “robot overlords” will soon take our jobs, and asks:
But where are these robot overlords? And if they are not here already — and all outward appearances suggest that they are not — should we expect their imminent arrival?
The main thesis of the report is that whilst automation and robotics can do the work of routine tasks it is far more difficult for robots to complete non-routine tasks:
Executing non-routine tasks is a central obstacle in computer-based automation.
Referring to Amazon’s acquisition of Kiva robotics Autor refers to the fact that Amazon still needs thousands of human’s in their warehouses:
These warehouses employ legions of dexterous, athletic “pickers,” who run and climb through shelves of typically non-‐‑air conditioned warehouses to locate, collect, box, label and ship goods to purchasers. There is at present no technologically viable or cost-‐‑effective robotic facsimile for these human pickers.
The job’s steep requirements for flexibility, object recognition, physical dexterity, and fine motor coordination are too formidable (for robots or automation).
But large components of warehousing can be automated as Amazon’s Kiva systems shows. However Autor emphasizes humans and robots working together in these warehouses:
Human flexibility is still required in the Kiva operated warehouse: only workers handle merchandise; robots only move shelves.
The report highlights the fact that machines need clear goals or instructions, whereas humans can operate with flexibility and judgment:
Humans naturally tackle tasks in a manner that draws on their inherent flexibility, problem solving capability, and judgment. Machines currently lack many of these capabilities, but they possess other facilities in abundance: strength, speed, accuracy, low cost, and unwavering fealty to directions.
The author indicates that even with advances in machine learning his: “general observation is that the tools (automation, soft A.I.) are inconsistent.”
Whilst acknowledging that there could be breakthroughs in technology (I think the author should have looked closer at Google’s DeepMind), the principal conclusion from the report is “that the challenges to computerizing numerous everyday tasks — from the sublime to the mundane — remain substantial,” and therefore robots will not be taking millions of jobs any time soon.
Outlining jobs where wages have stagnated and also those that the report author believes cannot be done by robots he concludes with the belief that robots and humans will collaborate and complement each other in the workplace (see also Human-computer symbiosis, not Artificial Intelligence, will spur new jobs):
There is a long history of leading thinkers overestimating the potential of new technologies to substitute for human labor and underestimating their potential to complement it.
He calls on governments and institutions to increase investment in training and education that produces skills which are complemented rather than substituted by technology. A point echoed by the European Union Commission who state: “More than 20% of GDP would quite simply disappear from Europe without intensive use of advanced robotics.” And that intensive use of robotics requires people skilled in building and working with advanced technologies. As I’ve said before – it’s a good time to join the robotics sector…
H/T William Rineheart and Andre Montaud for alerting me to Autor’s paper.