There’s good reason to believe that robots will soon replace a lot of our jobs. In fact, it’s happening right now. But as more robots enter the workforce, there’s a big potential disconnect with deploying these humanoids that might turn our robot work culture into a giant mess.
Ironically, the problem with deploying robots into the workforce is remarkably similar to a problem that a lot of humans have in the workforce as well.
The problem is effective communication. Oh, and staying out of each other’s way.
The problem with the robot takeover
Robots are being developed by a variety of companies all across the world. Each robot takes on its own unique set of features and capabilities. And, unfortunately, each robot has its own proprietary mechanisms of operation, error-control, and staying out of each other’s way.
The Changi General Hospital in Singapore has about 50 robots deployed throughout the building. Several times a day, according to Selina Seah who oversees the hospital’s robots initiative, its delivery robots can be found standing still in a hallway, doing nothing.
Why? Because neither robot knows what to do when it encounters an impediment, including another robot. Both robots stand still waiting for the other to make a move.
It’s the robotic equivalent of a “deadlock”.
“Up to this point, robots have been wired to the ground and connected by physical infrastructure,” said Rian Whitton, a robotics analyst at ABI Research. “As robots become more autonomous, they need to begin to communicate more.”
And, this is especially true as robots become more likely to encounter other robots.
The deeper problem: The robotics industry does not have a widely adopted operating and communications protocol that would allow robots from different manufacturers to communicate with one another seamlessly.
The non-profit Open Robotics initiative is trying to tackle the problem, but its widespread adoption has not yet happened, leaving deadlocks, standoffs, and other problems a clear and present conflict for factories and office buildings that use this type of automation.
Standard protocols help interconnect all different kinds of information technology equipment. For instance, a variety of standard online protocols (like HTTP, HTML, XML, etc) are widely adopted around the world, making communication easy between all types of networked computers, web servers, and other electronic equipment.
As robots become more prevalent in the workforce, their ability to communicate with one another will become increasingly important.
The economic impact of robotics
The problem with robots does not stop with communication. Deploying robots throughout the workforce introduces political and economic concerns as well, according to the New York Times.
Economically, robots will make it tougher for smaller businesses to compete with larger corporations with deeper pockets.
Resourceful online retailers like Amazon are using sophisticated artificial intelligence systems for super-human operating efficiencies while most smaller businesses and “mom and pop” shops are struggling to keep up. Of course, COVID-related lockdowns have only made things worse for both small businesses as well as working Americans.
“Since 2014, the United States economy has added more than 12 million jobs, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, yet the number of retail sales jobs decreased by about 114,000,” wrote the Times.
And, many jobs that were lost due to COVID have been replaced by machines instead of the people who used to work them. Nearly 40 million jobs were lost at the peak of the pandemic. While many of those jobs came back, as many as 40% of them could be gone forever as businesses eliminate positions or use robots to assume those roles.
For instance, robots are now cleaning the floors at many airports. Machines have taken over the role of tollbooth operator. Many call centers are now fully-automated. Amazingly, some hospitals and colleges across the nation now employ a clever salad-making robot, named Sally, to replace human staff in cafeterias.
“Sally assembles custom bowls on-demand from fresh ingredients protected in an airtight, refrigerated container,” wrote Chowbotics, Sally’s manufacturer.
One study claims that by 2030, robots could replace nearly 20 million jobs. Over 2 million robots are currently in use around the world today, which represents a threefold increase over the past 20 years. Most robotics-related job losses occur in poorer lower-skilled communities.
“As a result of robotization, tens of millions of jobs will be lost, especially in poorer local economies that rely on lower-skilled workers. This will therefore translate to an increase in income inequality,” the study’s authors said.
This is especially true in China, a country that accounts for nearly 30% of all deployed robots in the world. However, many states in the U.S. could also be affected in the coming decade as more robots become available. The study indicates that Texas, Louisiana, Indiana, and Oregon could be the hardest-hit states.
The New York Times is quick to point out that not everything relating to robotics and artificial intelligence is necessarily bad. In fact, A.I. can make workplaces safer as machines take over dangerous or monotonous jobs that human beings used to do. And, the efficiencies of online retailers has drastically boosted demand for transportation-type jobs, like local delivery drivers and long-haul commercial transport services, as A.I. helps logistics systems improve.
In 2018, U.S. companies deployed a record number of robots into the workforce.
More than 28,000 shipments of robots set a record across multiple industries, including automotive, food, semiconductors and electronics, and even life sciences.
Robots are designed to do monotonous or difficult jobs that would cost businesses much more money to employ a human to do.
For instance, delivery robots are programmed to take items from Point A to Point B within a facility. Robotic forklifts transport heavy equipment throughout factories. Robots can also scrub floors (like your Rumba vacuum!), weld pieces of metal, and even mix pharmaceutical drugs that a pharmacist would otherwise need to do.
Machines have already replaced many bank teller positions, telephone switchboards, toll booth collectors, and even cashiers at many grocery stores.