There is plenty of speculation about how robots will impact our lives—for the positive and negative. Are the fears of a sci-fi dystopia where robots will usher in the demise of humans hyperbole or spot on? Experts in the discussion typically believe robots will take over the dull, dirty and dangerous tasks from humans, otherwise known as the 3 Ds of robotisation. A fourth D predicts robots will take over dear or expensive tasks and was added by Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson in their book Machine, Platform, Crowd: Harnessing Our Digital Future.
Although most of us can find the value and can appreciate robots stepping in for 4-D tasks, the obvious follow-up question is what will happen to the employees who do those jobs for us now when robot colleagues take over?
Robots Free Humans Up from the Dull, Dirty, Dangerous and Dear Jobs
The first jobs that robots are doing and will continue to take over are those that are dull, dirty, dangerous and dear. According to forecasts from the International Federation of Robotics 1.7 million new robots will be installed in factories around the world and will alter operations significantly by 2020. If the experts are accurate, our workplaces are soon to become much more interesting, safe and clean.
There are a lot of repetitive and tedious tasks robots are uniquely qualified for. When they take care of these, it frees up the human workforce to focus on more creative and interesting pursuits. From Amazon fulfilment centres to hotels and even hospitals, robots are removing the tedium from many workplaces and often saving money in the process.
There are dirty jobs, most of which the average human doesn’t really know about, that just need to get done to keep our world functioning. Robots are the perfect stand-in for humans for dirty jobs as diverse a sewer reconnaissance, milking cows, autopsies and mine exploration. Mining giant Rio Tinto invested in robo-trucks, a programme that is one of the world’s largest non-military robot programmes.
We already use robots for dangerous military situations, space exploration and bomb investigations and detonations, and companies are starting to develop robots for security and police work; a robo-cop already serves on the Dubai Police force.
When a robot can be deployed on a project and it results in saving money or reducing delays, such as to check out progress at a construction project job site, it’s just one more way robots earn their keep.
What Will the Humans Do?
Although at this point our thoughts about what the future will be like when robots and humans co-exist is speculative, one thing is fairly certain—humans will no longer be employed doing jobs that robots can do safer, faster, more accurately and less expensively. One report by PwC suggests that 38 per cent of U.S. jobs are at “high risk of being replaced by robots and artificial intelligence” over the next 15 years.
As we have seen repeated in history time and time again, changing workforces will create more jobs and even new jobs that don’t exist today. Back in the 1980s, nobody ever expected there would be a position called a Social Media Manager, website developer or SEO expert or could have defined what those positions might be about.
Humans will also work alongside their robot colleagues and workplaces will be able to leverage what each one is best at doing. Humans are still more flexible and dexterous, they can think beyond algorithms to come up with unique ways of solving problems, they are empathetic, have emotional intelligence and more. Military drones still have human pilots, the tank that investigates sewer pipes has humans at the controls to make decisions from the visual and data that is reported back, and humans still have to programme. repair and teach robots, for the most part.
Robots may take over more and more of the tasks humans do in the physical world, but that will free up humans to dig into problems and jobs that require more creativity and brain power rather than brute physical or algorithmic strength. Robots allow humans to enhance their roles, but it will inevitably require training and new skill acquisition.
No matter where you fall on the spectrum of robots leading to impending doom or tremendous opportunity, change is coming. And it is clear that those who adapt to the change through education and training will be poised to thrive in our future economy.