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Robots taking jobs — Maybe we’ve been thinking about this wrong

 Around 1900, most inventions concerned physical reality: cars, airplanes, zeppelins, electric lights, vacuum cleaners, air conditioners, bras, zippers. In 2005, most inventions concern virtual entertainment — We have already shifted from a reality economy to a virtual economy, from physics to psychology. ~Geoffrey Miller

 

Many commentators and researchers have indicated a supposedly imminent end to work, or at least the infamous ‘47% of jobs will be displaced’ within 20 years or so due to the inexorable advance of machines. This is at best a distraction and at worst grossly exaggerated and overhyped, as one of the authors of the infamous papers has noted.

However if we extend the timeframe out and consider the question:

How much could the world of work plausibly change by the end of the 21st century?

Or:

Eighty-four years from now will human’s work to earn a living or will machines do all the labor?

Then I believe we have framed a different vision of the future, one where it may be more plausible to consider that human’s will work 15 hours per week (if at all) as predicted by Keynes in 1930[1].

 

 

[1] John Maynard Keynes, Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren (1930) – “everybody will need to do some work if (s)he is to be contented – three-hour shifts or a fifteen-hour week may put off the problem for a great while. “

 

 

 

3 areas robots will pervade by 2030

Rolls-Royce future control center.png

Buckminster Fuller said: “We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims.” Here are some things I think will probably be true:

It’s probably a good time to invest in robot courier services

  1. Fleets of self-driving trucks will be on the roads worldwide by 2020
  2. Those same trucks will have a ‘delivery driver’ inside the cabin for at least another 10 years
  3. By 2030 all sales of new trucks will be self-driving
  4. From 2030 onwards a robot such as the latest generation Atlas will be in the cabin to handle deliveries
  5. By 2050 very few, if any, human couriers will be used, instead people will have new jobs coordinating the self-driving trucks, delivery robots and facilitation depots

Update – 10th May 2016. DHL recently hosted journalists, customers, and experts in the field of robotics at “Robotics Day” in their DHL Innovation Center in Troisdorf, Germany. The company says “Robots will be part of the future of logistics, and we’re excited to be on the ground floor of what that future cooperation will be like.” See the video here for more information…

By 2020 Sales of co-bots (smaller industrial robots) will explode

  1. By 2020 Co-bots will reach sales exceeding half a million units
  2. By 2030 most manufacturers will use co-bots to perform some tasks
  3. Co-bots, together with 3d printers will be decisive tools in bringing manufacturing local
  4. Co-bots will start to handle many of the tasks performed by larger ‘caged’ robots
  5. Co-bots will contribute to significant declines in manufacturing personnel, but productivity and profit gains will lead to manufacturers increasing headcount of personnel in other parts of the organizations, sales, marketing, data analytics, IT support, etc.

Military robots will be used extensively on the battlefield

  1. By 2025 major world militaries will use driverless tanks, driverless armored cars and other driverless vehicles
  2. This will free up military personnel to conduct reconnaissance and attack missions from behind a ‘safe zone’
  3. By 2020 smaller more advanced hand held drones will be used extensively on reconnaissance missions inside buildings
  4. Soldiers will be kitted out with lightweight exoskeleton suits to give them extra strength, agility and protection
  5. By 2025 Atlas style robots will be used on the battlefield as ground forces

And a bonus — one thing I think is highly probable although not robot related

By 2050 gas stations will disappear to be replaced by electric charging stations

 

Picture credit, screenshot of Rolls-Royce Future Control Centre

 

47% of Jobs Not at Immediate Risk of Being Taken by Robots or Automation

Robotenomics Merlins skills.png

In 1812 the British government created an Act of Parliament which made the destruction of mechanized looms – or knitting machines – a capital felony and hence a crime punishable by death. The Act was implemented as a result of so called Luddite attacks on machines.[1]

It should be noted that in many cases the so called Luddites were not raging against the machines taking jobs, but against the employers who failed to provide them with a ‘living wage.’

According to the esteemed historian Eric Hobsbawm, the Luddites had: “no special hostility to machines as such,” their actions were in fact, “a normal means of putting pressure on employers.” Hobsbawm wrote: “Such misconceptions are, I think, due to the persistence of views about the introduction of machinery elaborated in the early nineteenth century.”[2] Adding:

This sort of wrecking was a traditional and established part of industrial conflict in the period of the domestic and manufacturing system, and the early stages of factory and mine. It was directed not only against machines, but also against raw material, finished goods and even the private property of employers, depending on what sort of damage these were most sensitive to. Thus in three months of agitation in 1802 the Wiltshire shearmen burned hay-ricks, barns and kennels of unpopular clothiers, cut down their trees and destroyed loads of cloth, as well as attacking and destroying their mills.

Essentially Luddites were the early trade unions and not raging specifically against the machines but seeking a ‘fair wage’ for the employees by rioting and causing damage to business owners’ property by any means to press their case.

The misconceptions of the actions of the Luddites led to poor legislation and policy in the United Kingdom.

Job security requires skills only Merlin possesses

In 2013, researchers Carl Frey and Michael Osborne of the Oxford Martin School announced that 47 percent of U S jobs were at risk of computerization:

According to our estimates around 47 percent of total US employment is in the high risk category. We refer to these as jobs at risk – i.e. jobs we expect could be automated relatively soon, perhaps over the next decade or two.

In 2014 Deloitte asked them to carry out similar research in the UK, where it was stated Frey and Osborne: “estimate that on average, 35 per cent of current jobs in the UK are at high risk over the next ten to twenty years.[3]

Frey and Osborne’s papers have led to a deluge of bleak headlines, such as Death of the Accountant and Auditor; Advances in artificial intelligence could lead to mass unemployment, warn experts; and whilst we are on this theme maybe the most embellished article and headline of all: Technology f*cked us all: The anxiety driving Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders is really about machines taking our jobs. The pessimistic view associated with Frey and Osborne’s paper has even led to claims that we may be headed for another Engels’ Pause: a period of stagnant living standards and higher unemployment in the face of rapid technological change.[4]

I am worried by the seemingly incurable pessimism caused by these headlines, which are also instigating governments to champion or consider policies that may not be in the long term best interests of the population they serve.

The headlines scream that if you want to make your job ‘non-susceptible’ to automation then you should make sure it has the type of skills that only Merlin possesses

It is important to realize that the methodology in the Frey and Osborne papers have never been validated with any actual evidence. Anyone with five minutes to spare, a Maths GCSE, and a modicum of common sense could pick flaws in the selection of types of jobs shown to be at high risk of being taken over by a computer algorithm.

Nevertheless, people, including policy makers, suspend their critical judgment and believe the headlines that robots are set to become a Hobbesian nightmare of breathtaking scope.

But if we look beyond the headlines and read the Frey and Osborne paper we find the authors are not stating ‘robots’ WILL take half of all jobs but computerization ‘could’ displace people from the types of jobs they have highlighted. In fact one of the authors, Carl Benedikt Frey, recently wrote in March 2016[5]:

Although we cannot exclude the possibility that technology may reduce the overall demand for jobs in the future, this is seemingly not an immediate concern.

Meanwhile his co-author Michael Osborne has gone as far as saying[6]:

I think a lot of the risk to professions has been overhyped.

Frey and Osborne do a good job surveying a certain type of literature on the suggested improvements being made within robotic, machine learning, artificial intelligence, etc. Although this research tends to rely too much on sources such as the International Federation of Robotics, an industry association with, in my opinion little impartiality and other publicity afforded to various robots and A.I. providers. They provide very little actual citation of work happening within the labs of developers, nor do they analyze the capabilities of current robots in any great degree through discussions with users of these robots, rather referring to the reported capabilities (or expected capabilities) of Baxter the co-bot by Rethink Robotics with a nominal number in service. They also use research that estimates that “the market for personal and household service robots is already growing by about 20 percent annually.” Which is more or less Roomba the automated vacuum cleaner, that to the best of my knowledge has not displaced any Ukrainian housecleaners in Poland!

Evidence of any actual job displacement by the current types of robotics and computerization illustrated by the authors is not shown. What the authors are doing is predicting a demise of jobs based on their research of the available literature! In fact the authors state in the paper:

We speculate about technology that is in only the early stages of development.

Nevertheless, despite the ‘speculation,’ they do make the bold claim:

In the first wave, we find that most workers in transportation and logistics occupations, together with the bulk of office and administrative support workers, and labour in production occupations, are likely to be substituted by computer automation.

So unlikely, so unimaginable

Which jobs are not at risk of automation according to Frey & Osborne?

Occupations that involve complex perception and manipulation tasks, creative intelligence tasks, and social intelligence tasks are unlikely to be substituted by computer capital over the next decade or two.

These are what the authors terms non-susceptible task characteristics.

A sub element of manipulation is manual dexterity. An indication of the level of “Manual Dexterity” computer-controlled equipment would require to perform a specific occupation. Low (level) manual dexterity corresponds to “Screw a light bulb into a light socket”; medium (level) is exemplified by “Pack oranges in crates as quickly as possible”; high (level) is described as “Perform open-heart surgery with surgical instruments”.

It is thus obvious in Frey and Osborne’s thesis that jobs at risk of automation can be summed up as follows:

The probability of an occupation being automated can thus be described as a function of these task characteristics. As suggested by Figure I, the low degree of social intelligence required by a dishwasher makes this occupation more susceptible to computerisation than a public relation specialist, for example. We proceed to examining the susceptibility of jobs to computerisation as a function of the above described non-susceptible task characteristics.

Frey and Osborne Figure 1.png

Arriving at 47% of jobs being highly susceptible to automation

The authors relied on O∗NET, an online service developed for the US Department of Labor. O∗NET defines the key features of an occupation as a standardised and measurable set of variables. It also provides open-ended descriptions of specific tasks to each occupation.

They then asked a specific question:

Can the tasks of this job be sufficiently specified, conditional on the availability of big data, to be performed by state of the art computer-controlled equipment?

The authors further identified nine variables that describe the attributes of perception and manipulation, creativity, and social intelligence and which are required to perform the attributes. These are shown in Table 1 from the authors’ paper. They then focused on O∗NET’s description of Tasks.

It should be Work Activity and Skills not Tasks

Time and time again as I look at the types of jobs Frey and Osborne say are at high and medium risk of being done by automation I can’t help but question – is it because they specifically looked at O∗NET data with respect to Tasks and not the essential element that portrays Work Activity and Skills?

Table 1 from Frey and Osborne.

Table 1 Frey and Osborne.pngFrey and Osborne indicate that their algorithm predicts that most workers in transportation and logistics occupations, together with the bulk of office and administrative support workers, and labour in production occupations, are at risk of automation within ten to twenty years,

Much of their argument about transportation employees circulates around the advent of driverless cars. We are much closer to an understanding of when driverless cars will be available to the ‘general public’ and it certainly seems that they will not be the main mode of transport in the next 3 decades if current developments and legislation is anything to go by. I do believe that we will see more semi-autonomous trucks on the roads in the coming decade, but I do not see that they will be without a human in the cab for sometime in the future. There are just too many infrastructure problems to overcome, let alone the technical obstacles.

Sports referees, Watch Repairers, Models and Manicurists jobs to be automated

Drill into the report and look at the types of jobs that they say have the highest probability of being replaced by automation and we find all sorts of jobs even the most pessimistic luddite will find hard to accept.

One job at the highest risk of automation, using Frey and Osborne’s methodology is that of Watch Repairer. According to O∗NET statistics there are 3,000 watch repairers in the United States. Now I may accept jobs of watch repairers will dwindle as sales of watches falls due to the fact nearly everybody looks at their smart phone for the time, but not that watches will be repaired by robots! If sales of watches are dwindling why invest the time and money building a robot to repair watches? In fact I suspect that Watch Repairers will become even more of a specialized job as sales of watches focus on the high value watch. I do not expect Watch Repairers will be replaced because an automated machine can repair the watch.

Another job that the authors state is at high risk of automation is Manicurists and Pedicurists – surely that requires a high level of dexterity, precision and social skill?

They also predict the days of Animal Breeders are over (is that because we will all have pet robots?), Gaming Dealers – not social at all!, Real Estate Brokers – presumably robots will arrange to show us around prospective houses. Maybe many people’s favorite choice but not likely any time soon – Umpires, Referees, and Other Sports Officials – will be automated.

Perhaps the one I most flinch at which Frey and Osborne’s algorithm predicts is at high risk of automation is Models.

Look at the tasks O∗NET provides as key for Models.

  1. Pose for artists and photographers.
  2. Gather information from agents concerning the pay, dates, times, provisions, and lengths of jobs.
  3. Follow strict routines of diet, sleep, and exercise to maintain appearance.
  4. Record rates of pay and durations of jobs on vouchers.
  5. Report job completions to agencies and obtain information about future appointments.

Now look at the Work Activity O∗NET provides.

  1. Establishing and Maintaining Interpersonal Relationships — Developing constructive and cooperative working relationships with others, and maintaining them over time.
  2. Performing General Physical Activities — Performing physical activities that require considerable use of your arms and legs and moving your whole body, such as climbing, lifting, balancing, walking, stooping, and handling of materials.
  3. Thinking Creatively — Developing, designing, or creating new applications, ideas, relationships, systems, or products, including artistic contributions.

And Skills

Social Perceptiveness — Being aware of others’ reactions and understanding why they react as they do.

Surely these Work Activities and Skills are elements that fit into Frey and Osborne’s criteria for jobs that will not be automated. I have repeated detailed analysis of over 90 of the occupations that Frey and Osborne indicate are at high and medium risk of automation and each time I question the judgment of the authors.

Policy makers are well advised to do their own analysis before using the Frey and Osborne paper to pursue policies that may not be in the best interest of their constituents.

One final word from the Frey and Osborne which is often overlooked in the hype associated with the paper:

We acknowledge that it is by no means certain that a job is computerisable given our labelling.

 

 

[1] The Destruction of Stocking Frames, etc. Act 1812 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Destruction_of_Stocking_Frames,_etc._Act_1812)

[2] Eric Hobsbawm, Machine Breakers (http://libcom.org/history/machine-breakers-eric-hobsbawm)

[3] Deloitte London Futures: Agiletown: the relentless march of technology and London’s response (http://www2.deloitte.com/uk/en/pages/growth/articles/agiletown-the-relentless-march-of-technology-and-londons-response.html Last accessed 11th April 2016)

[4] Engel`s Pause: A Pessimist`s Guide to the British Industrial Revolution. Robert C. Allen, April 2007 (http://www.economics.ox.ac.uk/materials/working_papers/paper315.pdf Last accessed 18th April 2016)

[5] Technology at work: How the digital revolution is reshaping the global workforce. Carl Benedikt Frey, Ebrahim Rahbari 25 March 2016 (http://www.voxeu.org/article/how-digital-revolution-reshaping-global-workforce Last accessed 11th April 2016)

[6] Robots are leaving the factory floor and heading for your desk – and your job, The Guardian Zoe Corbyn 9th February 2015 (https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/feb/09/robots-manual-jobs-now-people-skills-take-over-your-job Last accessed 11th April 2016)

Main paper cited – The Future of Employment: How susceptible are jobs to computerisation? Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne. September 17, 2013 (http://www.oxfordmartin.ox.ac.uk/downloads/academic/The_Future_of_Employment.pdf)

 

 

 

In an era of mass unemployment will we become robots pets?

Industry associations and analysts are a special kind of nuisance. They write research papers with titles like: “A World Without Work;” “Anticipating a Luddite Revival;” “Our Work Here is Done;” “Who Owns the Robots Owns the World;” “Robots not Immigrants Could Take Half of Jobs;” and “AI and Robots Threaten to Unleash Mass Unemployment.” These alarmist titles cause news editors to rely on the research papers like fortune-tellers rely on tealeaves.

Despite the good intentions of the authors and their predictions the research evidence is limited and primarily correlational in nature, few studies have demonstrated a causal relationship between the impacts of robots on jobs.

In the minds of many analysts and researchers, humanity is nearing a robot apocalypse where Robots will have taken over most jobs within 30 years leaving humanity facing its ‘biggest challenge ever.’

Then there are the researchers that believe we will all take on a super human intelligence and be implanted with artificial intelligence and robotic limbs like cyborgs, or Max, Matt Damon’s character in the film Elysium. As Yuval Harari sees it, in the one big area I disagree with him in his otherwise very thorough book[1], ‘ordinary’ humans will be unable to compete with robots or enhanced people:

I think it is likely in the next 200 years or so homo sapiens will upgrade themselves into some idea of a divine being, either through biological manipulation or genetic engineering [or] the creation of cyborgs…It will be the greatest evolution in biology since the appearance of life. But we will be as different from today’s humans as chimps are now from us.

If we are to believe the research then unless we upgrade our brains with an implanted A.I. and bodies with some form of exoskeleton, a combination of Edward Scissorhands and a Turing machine, then those that fail to transform are destined to become the “indeterminate blob” described by Robert Nozick.[2] Or as Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, speculates our robot masters might keep a small number of humans around for pets.[3]

Of course, whilst it will be some time before we are robot pets millions of dollars is being put into development of new kinds of drones with the strength and agility of a Pterodactylus that can deliver books to us within 30 minutes and robots that can empty trash bins because we’ve already solved cancer, climate change and homelessness, right?

The facts are, robots, those mechanized metal arms that now assemble and paint most of our cars, still have a long way to go to reach a tipping-point in manufacturing let alone come anywhere near our grandparents as elder care givers. Incidentally, I’ve never understood why we would need robots to take care of our elders when everyone else is going to be unemployed – surely if we have mass unemployment, we can take better care of our elders than a lump of metal with a potty mouth?

There will of course be more and more robots and it will come with some pain as they displace people from jobs. Technological change, like fashion, is always disruptive, and in the long sweep of human history, that disruption has been one of the fundamental sources of economic growth. Who would have thought that the economy could be predicted on sales of men’s underwear or that wearing a non-functional scarf indoors or beanie hat at World Bank meetings would become the norm?

Is this time different?

Business has always been — if you want to increase your bottom line, you’ll move to increase production by cutting out the human element.

My thesis is that current job displacement by machines is inevitable, and whilst this will lead to a significantly large number of people losing their jobs and yes this could be a long-term scenario, we are a long way from the day when the majority of human beings will have no work.

With increasingly ‘intelligent,’ easier to program and more dexterous machines replacing humans both in the manufacturing and the service sectors there will STILL be new jobs for humans to do – we just don’t know what they are yet — and this is one of the reasons we will need robots for elder care.

I’m hopeful – – the best is yet to come.

 

[1] Yuval Noah Harari. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. New York: Harper, 2015. [Google Scholar]

[2] Robert Nozick. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. New York: Basic Books, 1974, pp. 42–45. [Google Scholar]

[3] Benjamin Snyder. “Apple’s co-founder: We’re all going to be robots’ pets one day.” Fortune, 25 June 2015. Available online: http://fortune.com/2015/06/25/apple-wozniak-robots-pets/ (accessed on 30 March 2016).

 

 

Study – Robots are not taking jobs

Summary – Analysis conclusively shows over 1.25 million new jobs created during the last 6 years at companies making extensive use of robots. The detailed Robotenomics research report outlines full interviews and analysis of the key findings.

Ever since “the great recession” began in the latter part of 2008 it has been widely speculated that the installation of hundreds of thousands of factory robots has hindered job recovery; that robots are taking jobs and are in part responsible for high unemployment. These speculations further assert that more jobs will be lost as robots are able to take on an increasing number of tasks.

Our research of manufacturing corporations that are using industrial robots indicates that whilst companies are adding more and more robots to their factory floors, they are also adding more jobs to their payroll.

Based on legal corporate regulatory filings, such as annual financial reports, we find that 62 of the world’s largest manufacturing corporations who are heavy users of industrial robots, in fact users of hundreds of thousands of industrial robots, are adding more jobs and employing more people – over 1 million more – than they did before the onset of the great recession. In-depth interviews with executives and managers of these companies provide further insight into the manufacturing process and the relationship between human and robot workers, as well as the new career opportunities and skills needed in a future robot economy.

Key findings: Jobs: Between the end of 2009 and the end of 2014, sixty-two corporations with collectively the largest (and growing) installed base of robots added an additional 1.25 million new jobs to their payroll – an overall increase of more than 20% people employed.

During our research we analyzed legal corporate filings of companies using industrial robots for a period of six years (end of 2009 to end of 2014) to ascertain number of employees and where possible robots used. This analysis included quarterly (if available), half year, and annual corporate filings of 109 corporations that have a large installed base (and growing number) of industrial robots, the period covered was the start of 2009 to the end of 2014. We also analyzed relevant legal press releases from those entities.

We also we spoke to and conducted email correspondence with more than 90 senior executives, managers and engineers within companies that have a large installed base of robots, and reviewed reports from industry associations together with filings, press releases and corporate brochures and case studies from stock-listed robotic manufacturers. In total this analysis included approximately 1,500 legal compliance documents. We then compiled a database of employee headcount for each year analyzed and compared the annual growth or decline of number of employees per company.

Autopsy

During the last few years the popular press has delivered a flurry of articles stating that these advances in robotics is resulting in robots taking jobs. Much of the news is on the back of high profile acquisitions and investments, such as Amazon’s acquisition of Kiva robotics for $775 million, Google’s acquisition of 8 robot companies for approximately $100 million combined, followed by the acquisition of Artificial Intelligence developer DeepMind for approximately $500 million, Foxconn’s statement that it would replace 1 million people with robots (a case of fuzzy logic), IBM’s $1 billion investment in Watson, and announcements by Facebook, Yahoo, Baidu and Microsoft of additional investments in Artificial Intelligent assistants and related developments.

Further investments by major corporations in autonomous (self­-driving) cars and trucks, drones taking photographs at sports events and spraying crops. New movie releases (Her, Transcendence, Chappie, ExMachina and others in the science fiction genre) have also stoked the fire.

Robots sell papers and get eyeballs, of course whilst there is still also a novelty factor, and indeed fear of the unknown surrounding robots; nevertheless there are tremendous advances in robotic capabilities which could, it is fair to say, lead to robots doing many more types of jobs, in the future.

Collectively these developments are adding to the chorus of media claims and proclamations from leading economists and researchers, that robots are stealing jobs.

For example a December 2013 study from the James Martin 21st Century School at Oxford University estimated that approximately 47 per cent of U.S. employment was at high risk of being replaced by computerization over the next couple of decades (The future of employment: How susceptible are jobs to computerization? Frey and Osborne 2013), note the heavy media attention this paper received indicates jobs being replaced by robots in place of the authors’ position of “computerization.”

Book’s such as The Second Machine Age by MIT’s Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, Martin Fords The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future and Our Final Invention by documentary filmmaker, James Barrat, have also received a great deal of media attention ­ much of it focused on the negative aspect of technology (and especially robots) displacing jobs, despite one of the central messages of The Second Machine Age offering hope in a machine economy.

The book authors write:

The transformations brought about by digital technology will be profoundly beneficial ones. We’re heading into an era that won’t just be different; it will be better.

The high level of mixed reports and media, of claims that robots are taking jobs, led famed Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Labor Markets economist

David H. Autor to recently state:

Journalists and expert commentators overstate the extent of machine substitution for human labor and ignore the strong complementarities. The challenges to substituting machines for workers in tasks requiring adaptability, common sense, and creativity remain immense.

Disagreements about the impact of robotics on employment is common, even among so called “experts.” (Pew Research 2014).

We need numbers, not adjectives.

Of course this is not the first time we have heard the claim that automation and machines are eradicating jobs. The prediction that technological developments will lead to massive unemployment has been made since the turn of the 19th century (E.J. Hobsbawm 1952), and at least so far, the prediction has proven false.

The specific claim that “mechanical robots” will lead to mass unemployment has been ongoing since the early robots were installed in auto manufacturers at least fifty years ago leading to books such as Where have all the robots gone? Worker dissatisfaction in the 70s by Harold L. Sheppard and Neal Q. Herrick and comments such as the opening paragraph of a 1982 paper: Industrial robot technology and productivity improvement by James S. Albus which reads:

Many people today believe that the robot revolution is well under way, that factories are full of armies of highly intelligent robots, and that human workers are being displaced in droves. The facts are quite different.

Factories “full of armies of highly intelligent robots” were not case then. Nor are “human workers being Displaced (by robots) in droves.”’

US Manufacturing alone added 646,000 net new jobs over four years to end of 2013, according to White House figures.

As of June 2014 an additional 302,000 Manufacturing jobs in the US were unfulfilled according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Audi’s Annual Report of 2014 states:

The point of (Industrial robots) is not a factory devoid of people, but rather to provide the employees optimal support as they go about their work. In the future, robots will do the jobs that people don’t want to do because they are strenuous, monotonous or unergonomic, such as installation work in the vehicle interior or overhead work. Employees would then perform more challenging tasks. Machine monitoring, programming, and plant repair and maintenance are already becoming increasingly significant fields of activity at factories today.

Jobs created by companies that use robots

Whilst robots have found their way onto the factory floor, the numbers of these robots considerably outnumber sales of service robots, such as military or defense robots (e.g. unmanned aerial vehicles (drones), bomb detection robots), agricultural milking robots, automated guided vehicles used in logistics and warehouses and medical robots for assisted surgery.

Due to the relatively small number of service robots in everyday use it is hard to quantify any significant impact, positive or negative on the workplace. However, it is worth noting that Amazon, one of the largest users of service robots after their acquisition of Kiva systems in 2012, have increased their global headcount by 89,000 in the 3 years to the end of 2013. At the end of 2013 the company employed over 117,000 people, more than four times the 28,300 employees it reported on June 30th 2010. Many of these additional jobs have been in Amazon’s fulfilment centers, the very area where they have employed Kiva’s robotic systems. Amazon Vice President Mike Roth spoke of his belief that robots complement human labor:

The robots do not give jobs away. They make them more efficient… I see no way robotics are ever going to replace humans.

With respect to robots in the manufacturing sector (industrial robots), according to a recent PwC survey of US manufacturers, over one third of manufacturers said that the biggest impact robots will have on the manufacturing workforce in the next three years is that they will lead to:

New job opportunities to engineer advanced robots and robotic operating systems.

In the same PwC survey about one in four felt the biggest impact would be “more demand for talent to manage the robotic workplace.”

Our research indicates, despite the headlines, companies that have installed industrial robots are actually increasingly employing more people whilst at the same time adding more robots. Additionally econometric evidence suggests an important role for robots AND people in accounting for productivity growth. 

More importantly our research shows that it is NOT only young disruptive companies that are creating jobs and utilizing advanced robotics, as is the case with Amazon, Inc. and Tesla Motors, but also older more established companies like Chrysler, Daimler, Philips Electronics and more.

We have identified: over 1.25 million new jobs have been added by companies that make extensive use of industrial robots.  

It is noteworthy to also consider jobs created within the local communities of those manufacturers. In his book The New Geography of Jobs published in 2012, Enrico Moretti, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, estimated the employment multiplier of different sorts of work. A new manufacturing job, he suggested, typically creates 1.6 new jobs in the local service economy. In innovative industries, one new position might yield four to five new service sector jobs within a metropolitan area.

In addition the robotics manufacturing sector and associated industries are also adding new jobs at companies such as ABB Robotics, Kuka, Fanuc, Hitachi, Bosch and others. Similarly jobs are being created at both small and large Drone manufacturers as new investments and demand continues to stir growth.

The auto manufacturers

The biggest surprise, given the volumes of articles claiming robots have taken jobs in the motor sector, is seven auto manufacturers who have increased their number of employees by more than 132,000 people between 2009 and the end of 2014 whilst also adding tens of thousands of new robots to their factory floors.

Robotenomics auto summary jobs

Luxury car manufacturers Audi, BMW Group and Daimler (manufactures of Mercedes Benz) have seen significant increases in the total number of employees between 2009 and the end of 2014, despite the global recession and claims installations of robots were causing companies to cut back on the number of people employed.

The three luxury auto manufacturers were already heavy users of industrial robots and in the last four years have added at least an additional 10,800 industrial robots to their production lines. According to Richard Morris, vice president of assembly at the BMW Spartanburg plant:

Ideas come from people, and a robot is never going to replace that.

The person who does the robot programming and services the robots will make a substantial contribution to future car productivity. Even with the new slower, more flexible robots being introduced into production, BMW’s customized and agile production entails serious challenges for technology requiring the skills and dexterity of people. For example, the BMW 7 Series, alone, has ten to the power of seventeen possible variations.

As robots handle 95% of painting and welding within BMW factories, a production employee at one of BMW’s plants is likely to look far more like a scientist. BMW have developed augmented reality glasses for assemblers and mechanics that display online manuals and instructions explaining exactly how parts should fit together, which has led to higher levels of inspection and quality control. In addition to augmented reality glasses, Christian Steiger who is responsible for mechatronics (or Industrial Robots) in the BMW Group Munich plant said:

BMW factory technicians use the most up-to-date systems and processes like ultrasound, camera and laser technology for the purposes of quality assurance such as measuring the thickness of a spot-weld applied by one of the thousands of robots, but classic testing procedures using hammer and chisel are still used too.

The Porsche Macan factory in Leipzig, Germany is one of the most advanced auto manufacturing facilities in the world and heavily automated with industrial robots. However Porsche, who have seen a huge jump in the number of people employed over the last 6 years, emphasizes the importance of human workers in such an automated facility:

A total of 387 robots turn the body shop into an impressive sight. However, despite the high degree of automation, human workers are essential here, in particular for quality controls, systems operation and several manual tasks. In the body shop we rely on harmonic interaction between expert human labor and state­of­the­art technology.

Another car manufacturer Toyota has a mission of “creating a company that would never have to dismiss employees.” Toyota not only uses thousands of robots at its production plants, but also makes its own robots.

Toyota wants to provide a pleasant workplace for its workers and one that helps them feel good about their work. To create a pleasant environment for the workers, we use machines and robots for work that is dirty or requires a lot of strength. Also, since machines and robots can accurately repeat the tasks they are given on time, they are ideal for repetitive, precise tasks. This is why we use many machines and robots in the stamping, welding, and painting processes.

Tasks that require complex judgments, such as assembly and inspections, and those that require intuition and special expertise, are performed mainly by humans. We also need workers to operate the machines and robots. In this way, human workers and machines (robots) each do what they do best, working together to make high­quality cars.

Despite being a significant producer and user of robots, Toyota is not of the opinion that it will ever have a totally automated factory, staffed only by robots:

“We don’t think machines and robots will ever be able to make cars by themselves. While we use many machines and robots in our factories, there are many tasks that only human workers can perform. It is only through the cooperation of workers and machines that we are able to make cars of such high quality. Toyota doesn’t believe it would be possible to have a fully automated car factory that does not have any human workers.”

The number of jobs directly and indirectly created by Toyota in the US alone is considerable. When factoring in the people selling and servicing new Toyota vehicles the total US jobs supported annually by Toyota in 2010 was 365,000 with annual compensation of approximately US$ 21.4 billion.

Honda is another car manufacturer that added jobs to its payroll between 2009 and 2014. It is also at the forefront of producing robots that are scheduled to enter every day use in the form of exoskeleton’s to aid people with disabilities to walk again and robots for rescue work after disasters. Perhaps the best known member of Honda’s ‘robot family’ is ASIMO, the ‘humanoid’ robot, which the company imagines will “be useful for people and to help enrich people’s daily lives.”

Honda has invested heavily in new facilities and automation. At their state­of­the art Yorii plant, which they opened in 2013, just north of Tokyo which uses production lines characterized by the coexistence of work robots with human workers, Honda has introduced a variety of innovative technologies in the pursuit of automation and efficient manufacturing. High­speed welding robots make the car body frames, robots install instrument panels, seats and tires and mount suspension systems. Despite the heavy investments in automation and robotics Honda has also added thousands of new jobs to its headcount.

The detailed Robotenomics research report outlines full interviews and analysis of the key findings and the analysis conclusively shows over 1.25 million new jobs created, during the last 6 years, at companies making extensive use of robots. For now this may help to put to rest some of the fear-mongering of the present day.

In fact Robotics may just be a terrific job to pursue.

In his book The Coming Jobs War, Gallup CEO Jim Clifton said that one of the most important discoveries the international polling firm has ever made is that what people want – ahead of love, money, food, shelter, safety, peace, and even freedom – is to have a good job. “This changes everything for world leaders,” he wrote. “Everything they do – from waging war to building societies – will need to be in the context of the need for a good job.”

Where will the new good jobs be? Who will get them? What should you be doing today to ensure that you have jobs in the future?

The Nobel Prize commission awarded the 1987 Nobel Prize in Economics to Professor Robert Solow in part for his work, which indicates that technological development will be the motor for economic growth in the long run. In Solow’s model, if continuous technological progress can be assumed, growth in real incomes will be exclusively determined by technological progress.

Business is fraught with production and process inefficiency, our era is one of turbulent technological and economic change, it seems clear that the productive potential of robotics have only begun to be realized and the robotics sector is one of employment growth.

A United States Department of Labor study found that 65% of children currently in primary school will grow up to work in jobs that do not exist today. Robotics is a growing field, and the proliferation of robots into our everyday lives is likely to be one of the key transformations in the workplace of the 21st century.

Clyde Williams wrote as far back as 1953 that:

The machine is, in fact, a moronic robot able to perform routine operations with high speed, excellent precision, and unwavering patience.

Demis Hassabis of Google’s DeepMind indicates that Computers are nowhere near being able to ape human behavior or take over human thinking.

In 1962 Vannevar Bush wrote of Automations Awkward Age about the same time robots were entering the factory. He said then “on an over-all basis, automation creates jobs.” It is exactly the same today.

Isn’t it time we got on with the real work of ensuring a more equal distribution of equality and resources instead of making claims of robots taking jobs that clearly do not stack up.

Robotics – here’s to the crazy ones

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In the early 1970s the UK Government commissioned a special report Artificial Intelligence: A General Survey authored by James Lighthill on behalf of the Science & Engineering Research Council (the infamous Lighthill Report) which damned A.I. and was “highly critical” of basic research in foundational areas such as robotics. The report recommendations led to the withdrawal of research funding from all but three UK universities. The same kind of official doubts which the Lighthill Report made explicit in the UK lay behind a less extreme slow down in research funding in the US. This is sometimes referred to generically as the “first A.I. winter.”

This was changed, some ten years later, in the late 1980’s under, the then, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher after the publication of The Alvey Report; Britain’s strategic computing initiative, recommended putting a lot of money into A.I. research, which they renamed Knowledge Based Systems. Robotics, closely associated with A.I., was also a recipient of the new flow of government support, which was meant to help improve Britain’s lagging fortunes against the growing success of the Japanese economy. Folklore tells us that despite her agreement to proceed with the funding Mrs. Thatcher still considered the scientists and engineers, or the “Artificial intelligentsia,” to be seriously deranged.

However the investment flows were not significant on a global scale. As a result in the second decade of the 21st century, despite the promises of a robot revolution, there are still less than approximately 1.3 million industrial robots in active service worldwide, and, whilst we are seeing some progress in ‘soft’ A.I., most notably products such as Google Now and Siri along with IBM’s Watson, Peter Thiel, known for investing in several A.I. companies, such as UK based DeepMind (sold to Google for circa US$ 500 million) and Vicarious wrote in his Founder’s Fund manifesto:

While we have the computational power to support many versions of A.I., the field remains relatively poorly funded, a surprising result given that the development of powerful A.I.s (even if they aren’t general A.I.s) would probably be one of the most important and lucrative technological advances in history.

Things do however appear to have changed. Investments in robotics and A.I. seem to be surging once again, the US National Science Foundation has invested at least US$ 89 million in robotics labs in the last few years and earlier this year the European Commission formally announced the world’s largest investment into Robotics. Other countries and businesses are also investing heavily into the sector.

On the 9th December I attended the robotics Brokerage Day held by euRobotics in Brussels, Belgium. The Brokerage day was essentially an education and networking day aimed at assisting Robotic research labs and industry partner up to apply for grants under one of the EU’s grant calls (ICT 2015), where a total grant budget of 561 million Euros is available. Around 300 participants from 30 countries attended the event with over 50 teaser presentations given.

Health care

The area of health care robotics, including robots to help the elderly and disabled was particularly prominent.

Research Professor Dr. Sven Behnke of the University of Bonn discussed his labs work on ‘Cognitive robots,’ which he believes represents the “next step in the fusion of machines, computing, sensing, and software to create intelligent systems capable of interacting with the complexities of the real world.” This included smart mobile manipulation of every day care duties, such as cleaning the floor or handling a bottle.

Several research labs and companies such as Antonio Frisoli of Wearable Robotics from Italy and Volkan Patoglu, of Sabanci University, İstanbul, Turkey discussed work on exoskeleton’s to provide people with the ability to be mobile after losing a limb or other disability.

Enrico Castelli of the Children’s Hospital in Rome presented their pioneering work on exoskeleton’s for children with neurological disorders.

Elvan Gunduz spoke of SciRobots approach to building care robots to help people with dementia, helping sufferers live a ‘good life.’

Hazardous environments

Other researchers outlined their work on providing robots to work in hazardous environments, think fire fighting, underground mining or nuclear disasters.

Cloud robotics

It was very clear that labs and industry shared a common goal that: “No robot is an island.” Believing that advances in artificial intelligence and robot software can be greatly enhanced by the ability of researchers and robots to access a local network to improve self-driving cars, logistics and factory planning.

Child like curiosity, not deranged 

Mrs. Thatcher may have been impressed with the advances on display although the child-like curiosity by so many adult robot enthusiasts, me included, may not have changed her mind about how crazy one needs to be to believe you can change the world with robotics – she may not have been familiar with Steve Jobs toast to the crazy ones, who see things differently and make a difference in the world through their visions and creations.

What was clear in this child like derangement, roboticists genuinely believe they are building some of the most important tools of the 21st century – I agree.

Photo credit: Dr. Sven Behnke of the University of Bonn 

5 reads in robotics for elder care, artificial intelligence research and new jobs

How Cost Effective Is a Robotic Solution for Elder Care

Robots serving various tasks and purposes in the medical/health and social care sectors beyond the traditional scope of surgical and rehabilitation robots are poised to become one of the most important technological innovations of the 21st century. Nevertheless, unresolved issues for these platforms are: patient safety, as the robots are necessarily quite powerful and rigid and the cost effectiveness of these solutions. (PDF)

Be more afraid of machine stupidity than of machine intelligence

“I would make a distinction between machine intelligence and machine decision-making.

We should be afraid. Not of intelligent machines. But of machines making decisions that they do not have the intelligence to make. I am far more afraid of machine stupidity than of machine intelligence.

Machine stupidity creates a tail risk. Machines can make many, many good decisions and then one day fail spectacularly on some a tail event that did not appear in their training data. This is the difference between specific and general intelligence.”  (Sendhil Mullainathan)

New research may lead to technology that helps the blind and robots navigate natural environments

Two groups of scientists, working independently, have created artificial intelligence software capable of recognizing and describing the content of photographs and videos with far greater accuracy than ever before, sometimes even mimicking human levels of understanding. (NY Times)

Artificial Intelligence Can’t Replace Hard-Earned Knowledge – Yet

So until the androids take over, smart software and big data are merely very useful tools to help us work. Machines replace many kinds of repetitive work, from flying airplanes to sorting through medical symptoms. And to the extent that deeply smart humans can program potential problems into the software — even relatively rare ones — the system can react faster than a human. Some day robots may have deep smarts. For the present, we would settle for preserving the human variety and continuing to forge ever more productive partnerships with our silicon cousins. (Harvard Business Review)

Looking for a job in A.I.? A sneak peak at what it’s like working inside an A.I. Lab

It’s a compelling time to be working in A.I. to impact a huge number of lives. Baidu Research – Have an Inside Look into Baidu’s Silicon Valley A.I. Lab with learning lunches. (Baidu A.I. Lab Video)