Professor Toshio Miyatsuka is one of Japan’s leading experts on North Korea. He has filled his office with mundane objects such as toys and packs of cigarettes, all from the Hermit Kingdom. Photo: Miho Inada/The Wall Street Journal
Bryan Lufkin writes: Robots are entering the workforce. Some will work alongside you. Others, sadly, will put you out of work. The question is, which jobs are actually on the chopping block?
The answer to that has been bathed in media hype, but we talked to experts who gave us some realistic answers about which human careers might be endangered — and why.
Warehouse and factory workers
Robots are already working in distribution centres. This kind of setting is fertile ground for robot takeover, because bots are good at repetitive tasks that don’t require them to adapt to new situations on the fly. Adjusting to dynamic environments, improvising reactions, and nuancing your behaviour based on the changing situation are still very human things to do. Robot developers have a hard time perfecting those behaviours in robots, which is why we don’t see a Rosie the tidying, talking, wisecracking housemaid bot yet.
But in factories, robots can be programmed to do one thing, in one place, over and over again. It’s called “narrow AI.” A robot can be stationed in one spot on the distribution warehouse floor, lifting palettes that are all the same shape and size, and placing them on a conveyor belt whose location never changes. In fact, this is already happening in shipping centres like United Parcel Service in the US, where 7,000 packages are sorted every minute.
Chauffeurs, cab drivers, etc.
Add professional car drivers to the vulnerable list. We’re already in the midst of this transition. “I think cars, especially cars for hire, will probably be autonomous,” says Richard Alan Peters, an associate professor of electrical engineering at Vanderbilt University and CTO at Universal Robotics.
Obviously, companies like Google have some crash-related kinks to iron out of their self-driving experiments. Plus a nightmarish morass of legislation awaits this industry of automatic magic cars that cruise busy streets without a human at the helm. But it’s happening: Look at Carnegie Mellon University, where Uber has a whole lab set up solely for self-driving cars.
“Especially [security guards] that are out observing the perimeter after hours. Checking doors and halls will be automated,” Peters says. Basically, any job that’s super repetitive could be a target for robot replacement. To compound that, any repetitive job that the robot can do better than a human is especiallyvulnerable.
Robo security guards already kind of exist. Microsoft announced last year that they have toyed with Dalek-shaped sentries roaming their Silicon Valley campus. These five-foot tall, lidar-equipped bots scan intruders, recognise licence plates, and comb social media activity for any hints of danger in the area. The makers of these robots say the intention is not to replace human security guards. We’ll see about that, though, as the tech continues to advance.
Here, we’re talking about facility cleaning that doesn’t require fine motor skills. So folks who might come to your office and power blast your cafeteria floor, for example, could be replaced by robots. Polishing, vacuuming, scrubbing… that’s what robots will be doing (and already are doing in many homes with Roombas). However, not all custodians need worry (yet).
“The history of robotics shows that most tasks — e.g., tidying a room — are much harder for robots than one might think,” says Seth Lloyd, a mechanical engineering professor at MIT. Tasks like cleaning an apparatus that’s a bit more complex — say a toilet or sink — will still require humans who have articulated manipulators and nimble fingers covered with sensor-packed skin.
Lloyd is “pretty sceptical” about robots taking over jobs. He quips that based on how some people talk so grandly about robots in the workforce, that although “robots still won’t be able to tidy a room,” we will have “robotic teenagers able to mess up rooms in new and creative ways.”
“A lot of research is going into cooperative assembly by robots,” Peters explains. He says that assembly of huge objects like ships and planes will be largely automated soon. Again, the main reason is a lot of manual labour is involved: pick up that piece of drywall, hold something in place, screw something in. Read the rest of this entry »
A perfect storm of economic forces is fueling the trend
Timothy Aeppel reports: Having devoured many of the world’s factory jobs, China is now handing them over to robots.
China is already the world’s largest market for industrial robots—sales of the machines last year grew 54% from 2013. The nation is expected to have more factory robots than any other country on earth by 2017, according to the German-based International Federation of Robotics.
A perfect storm of economic forces is fueling the trend. Chinese labor costs have soared, undermining the calculus that brought all those jobs to China in the first place, and new robot technology is cheaper and easier to deploy than ever before.
Not to mention that many of China’s fastest-growing industries, such as autos, tend to rely on high levels of automation regardless of where the factories are built.
“We think of them producing cheap widgets,” but that’s not what they’re focused on, says Adams Nager, an economic research analyst at the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation in Washington. Mr. Nager says China is letting low-cost production shift out of the country and is focusing instead on capital-intensive industries such as steel and electronics where automation is a driving force.
China’s emergence as an automation hub contradicts many assumptions about robots. Read the rest of this entry »
SA Forum is an invited essay from experts on topical issues in science and technology. This column was produced in collaboration with the World Economic Forum. Justine Cassell is director of the Human–Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. Read the full article here, and read more about Cassell here.
Imagine you have a great-aunt, a vibrant woman in her 70s who refuses to be trapped in a rocking chair. In fact, she holds a full-time job and insists on walking there and back, a couple of miles each way. She says it keeps her young, but you can’t help worrying. No one is healthy forever.
Like many people her age, your great-aunt follows a set routine. Before her trip to work, she stops at a nearby café for a cup of
tea, and as she walks she phones a friend on her mobile phone. After work, she likes to call another friend to ask about a visit. She picks up a small cake or a few cookies at a shop on the way. Afterward she buys groceries to take home for supper.
A big departure from this pattern could mean your great-aunt is having problems. If you had access to her cell phone records and GPS data, you could see that something was up. It could even help you tell how urgent the situation might be. If she’s quit socializing and is just shuttling to work and back, it might signal depression—you’d make a note to drop by and make sure she’s okay. If she stops leaving the house entirely and doesn’t answer her phone, you know the problem is urgent. If you can’t get over there immediately, you’d better call a neighbor to look in on her. Read the rest of this entry »
Average Is Over—But the American Dream Lives On
Who dreams of being average? Americans define personal success in different ways, but certainly no one strives for mediocrity. The children of Lake Wobegon, after all, were “all above average.”
Perhaps this explains why some reviewers have understood the glum predictions of Tyler Cowen’s Average Is Over—that shifts in the labor market will cause the middle class to dwindle—as heralds of the death of the American Dream. This understanding misses the real thrust of Cowen’s book.
Everyone has their own notions of what constitutes the American Dream, but when writer and historian James Truslow Adams coined the phrase in the 1930s, he wrote that in America “life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.” Cowen’s vision of our future actually reinforces this idea. Read the rest of this entry »
PIXY! Teaching Micro-controllers Boards to See: Scientists Predict Major Implications for the Cat-Pestering IndustriesPosted: September 10, 2013
Now in the closing few days of its Kickstarter campaign the Pixy camera board from Carnegie Mellon is an interesting departure from cameras intended to be connected to micro-controllers like the Arduino. It isn’t just another camera, it’s a “smart” vision sensor. Read the rest of this entry »
Aniruddh Chaturvedi came from Mumbai to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Penn., where he is majoring in computer science. This past summer he interned at a tech company in Silicon Valley.
During two years in the U.S., Chaturvedi has been surprised by various aspects of society, as he explained last year in a post on Quora.
Chaturvedi offered his latest thoughts on America in an email to Business Insider.
The most surprising things about America:
Roughly 21 million adult Americans don’t own a cellphone—and they’re getting by just fine, thank you.
By GARY SERNOVITZ
THIS YEAR MARKS the 40th anniversary of the first official call by a hand-held cellphone, made by Motorola, in front of reporters on the streets of New York. This week marks my 40th birthday. A few weeks after that milestone I will be buying my first cellphone. I am not doing this because of a fascination with amazing inventions from 1973, like the Bic lighter or the Iditarod. I am buying one because my wife accepted a fellowship in California, and I will need to work remotely from there when I visit her.
Some tech holdouts boast of their monastic resolve. Others try to hide it. But for all of us, the choice becomes part of our public identity. One day you’re Jane Smith, lawyer and marathon runner. Then, like Kevin Costner among the Sioux, you’re He Who Lives Without Facebook.
For the last two decades, I have spent 83% of my waking hours enjoying the freedom of not owning a cellphone, 5% feeling smug about it, 2% in situations in which a phone would have been awfully convenient and 10% fielding incredulous questions. The first is always: How do you do your job? (I’m not the junior blacksmith at the Renaissance Faire; I’m a managing director at a private-equity firm.) I explain that my colleagues are very tolerant, the firm provides me with all of the latest communication tools (computer, telephone, Post-its) right at my desk, and accomplishing my daily tasks without a smartphone is not beyond human capability. Indeed, people lived this way back at the Dawn of Civilization, circa 1992.