Much has been written about the impact of automation. Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, when Luddites destroyed textile machinery to protest new technology that impacted traditional practices, there have been fears of humans being replaced by machines.
The reality is more complex. Automation has definitely affected certain professions and tasks, impacting people to a greater or lesser degree (when was the last time you rode in an elevator with a human operator?). This has resulted in workforce disruptions; however, the overall volume of work continues to grow, creating even more opportunities. Many people now wonder what the impact of automation will be over the next 15 years.
From The Evolution Of Tools...
To understand our future, we first need to look at the past. When early humans discovered that using bones or sticks made it easier to dig a hole in the ground, the “tool” was born and has continued to evolve alongside humanity. In the Stone Age, over 2 million years ago, our ancestors started developing specialized tools. But it would only be in the Iron Age, about 2,000 to 3,000 years ago, that something resembling modern shovels became available, enabling much more effective digging.
With mechanization came the excavator. For the first time, instead of strength, an operator’s skill became more important. Beyond the efficiencies and effort savings, this enabled much larger projects at a scale that was previously impossible. Throughout this time, construction, mining and farming didn’t stay static — they expanded in complexity and scope to absorb the new capabilities.
So, now we have autonomous machines — robots — that can sense their environment and perform basic tasks without direct human operation. Increasingly, these operational processes in the physical world can be designed, executed and controlled through software. This is known as software-defined X. But that doesn’t mean that robots can do all the work by themselves: Humans are still needed to work in concert with robots.
Thinking of robots as highly evolved tools fits reality better than what most sci-fi movies have conditioned us to think, which is most commonly as “inorganic people.” Tools, on the other hand, still need to be told what to do, are designed for a specific purpose (hammer vs. screwdriver) and are often very limited in their adaptability. For instance, an autonomous mobile robot (AMR) in a warehouse may be able to drive around an out-of-place pallet; however, it may still need some guidance from a human operator if there’s an oil spill. Even seemingly unimportant changes in the environment, like lighting or a bright reflection, may turn a robot into an expensive paperweight.
...To The Evolving Role Of People At Work
This brings us to the evolving role of people in the workplace. Rather than relying on their own strength, dexterity or ability to carry out repetitive tasks, workers can now delegate certain tasks to a fleet of robots. Robots must still be supervised, and it will be up to the human operators to ensure that the conditions are propitious for the robot to perform optimally.
If this sounds a lot like being the boss, it's no coincidence. Human workers will direct the work of robots, interpreting data and dealing with anything that falls outside a robot’s fairly narrow ideal operating conditions. A single person may be able to supervise many machines at once. More advanced users may conduct the work of robot fleets. Everyone gets to boss the robots around. The best part? The robots won't complain.
The implications of this shift go even further. Although some jobs may require people working next to the robots (sometimes called cobots, or collaborative robots), in other cases, the work could be done from an air-conditioned room a short distance away — or even on a different continent. This job will be open to a broader set of people with various physical abilities. Moreover, unlike the highly specialized skills required to create a robot, being a roboteer (my preferred term for people in this role) doesn't require a Ph.D. Anyone who's played a video game should be able to operate a fleet of autonomous robots.
This will democratize access to labor. By decoupling labor from location, people around the world can pitch in. Despite concerns around the adverse impact on workers, the data shows that in some areas of the world, job vacancies are going unanswered. For instance, there's currently a record-setting 10 million open and unfilled positions in the U.S. By 2030, this labor shortage could amount to $8.5 trillion.
Promoting people to roboteers will also elevate them from carrying out menial tasks to doing work previously associated with white-collar, professional jobs. It will also drive greater equity by bringing the ability to work from home to a much larger swath of the world’s population. Worksite accidents and deaths can also be reduced, as dangerous or physically demanding tasks can be tackled without risk.
A New Role: The Robot Boss
Tools have come a long way from those early sticks and stones. Along the way, they enabled humanity to achieve incredible feats, from feeding billions of people to space exploration. Smart tools like autonomous robots will allow us to push the limits even further, which will be needed to address the next set of challenges for humanity, like climate change.
Instead of replacing humans, modern robots can achieve amazing feats working alongside people. For instance, California-based IronOx (an advisor for InOrbit) just raised $53 million to scale the growth of leafy greens like lettuce and basil in greenhouses, using robots to achieve in 1 acre the same yield that would require 30 acres with traditional techniques, while reducing water usage by 90%. While facing the worst drought in 1,200 years in the Western U.S., this is welcome news.
So, don’t be too surprised if at the next social gathering, when you ask someone what they do, they respond with “I’m a robot boss.”
* This article was originally published on Forbes.com
Photo credit: Nissan Motor Corp