More Robots Coming to the Workplace

Although I’ve already written a couple of blogs about robots in the workplace, I keep seeing new reports about them and they get me thinking.

The latest news comes from two separate companies. The first is from Boston Dynamics regarding their Atlas robot (pictured above). I can’t decide whether it’s creepy or cool, but I actually felt sorry for it when a lab guy pushed it down with a stick.  Atlas can walk in a snow-covered forest without tripping or falling down, and can do menial labor such as stacking boxes on a shelf.

The other news is about Sofia, a robot under development at Hanson Robotics. Sofia is more of a humanoid, with sophisticated facial expressions and natural-sounding conversation. She – it? – would be well suited for as a hotel front desk receptionist or similar customer service employment.

Eventually the physical abilities of Atlas will get combined with the personal skills of Sofia, and human-like robots will become a reality. But these two robots could be employed today doing simple tasks and I’m sure will rapidly increase in capabilities once the market positioning is figured out. They will soon be able to take jobs that are hard to hire for such as nursing home attendants, restroom cleaners and mine workers. In fact, according to a report from the International Federation of Robotics, manufacturers sold 4,416 elderly and handicap assistance robots in 2014.

That of course raises the question of what will happen to the people currently doing those jobs. We can look to the past for the answer. There used to be stable attendants for horses (before cars), switchboard operators,  pinsetters (bowling alleys), milkmen, lamplighters (before electric streetlights), gandy dancers (manual railroad laborer) and elevator operators. Those jobs have long since been replaced by technological advances, and yet the unemployment rate today is lower than it was in 1920.  What gives?

It’s pretty simple. First, those jobs are gone, but new ones were created in new technological areas that paid more. The increased productivity raised living standards for everyone. And educational standards have gotten much better; the U.S. high school graduation rate has risen from 6% at the beginning of the 20th century to 80% today. Almost everyone now has TV, running water, air conditioning, etc., a huge increase in the standard of living over that time period.

Assuming these trends continue, we can expect more low-level jobs to be replaced by robots, creating new high-level jobs requiring better educations. And the resulting productivity gains will benefit the society as a whole. 

So robots are a good thing… as long as they don’t get too smart. But I’ll save that discussion for another blog.

Photo from video, “Atlas, The Next Generation,” by Boston Dynamics

Frank Kenna III
March 22, 2016

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