Automation in the Workforce: How Afraid Should You Be?

Credit to Shutterstock, Tesla, Uber/Otto

According to reports from the International Federation of Robotics, robotics sales have increased by 33% overall in the year 2015. A number like this gets more impressive when you break it down by industry: 41% in electronics, 39% in metal, and 16% in plastic and rubber production.[3] All of which is to say, many workplaces and manufacturing processes are being filled with automated machines and robots to perform tasks initially done by humans. With this in mind, one question still remains: what does this mean for me?

Over the next 20 to 30 years, we could see up to 60 or 70% of jobs being replaced.

Well, there is certainly no need to fire up your time machines, or start looking for John Connor. No Terminator-esque future is awaiting us, at least not anytime soon. What all of this really means is that the economy is changing, and we need to change with it. The current demand for more efficient and rapidly produced goods is rising at a swift pace. In a 2013 research study conducted by students at Oxford university, approximately 47% of Americans have jobs that can, and most likely will, be easily replaced by autonomous robots over the course of the next decade.[1] Over the next 20 to 30 years, we could see up to 60 or 70% of jobs being replaced.

This would mean that all of those workers who used to occupy those jobs would be left out to dry, right? Unfortunately, that is not an easy question to answer. There are many different facets to this problem. First, however, let’s take a look at some of the industries that will most be affected by the growing tide of automation.

Through years of trial and error, and reports and research, robots on assembly lines have proven to be exponentially safer than humans.

Many people tend to assume that robotic automation will come far in the future and bring with it a fiery apocalypse, leaving us mere humans with nothing but the dust of a deserted wasteland. In actuality, these kinds of automated advancements have been entrenched in the workforce for years. One place this is inherently evident is the automotive and assembly industries. As vehicles become more advanced, so do the processes involved in constructing them. For these tasks, many robotic aids have been created, deployed, and given full autonomy over a leg of the production process – and with good reason. Through years of trial and error, and reports and research, robots on assembly lines have proven to be exponentially safer than humans. They also require fewer man hours in training, and are able to work more efficiently and for longer periods of time.

In this manner, the tasks being replaced thus far are incredibly simplistic, suited for a machine to do with little to no error or delay. Other industries that tend to experience the benefits of automation are: the food industry, with self serving kiosks and automatic cookers; translation, with technology like speech-to-text and programs for automatic translation improving each day; and lastly, drivers and truckers.[6]

The year 2016 saw one of the largest technical achievements in self-driving technology, as an autonomous semi-truck, packed full of beer, made a journey of more than 120 miles down Colorado’s I-25 interstate.[5] This feat was accomplished at the hands of Uber, one of the leaders in integrated self-driving tech and innovators of personal transport. This marks an incredible milestone for self-driving vehicles, and the automated world at large, because it proves that, if perfected, trucking and mass transportation can be done entirely without human drivers. That is not to say that humans will no longer be an integral part of the process, but the majority of the human focus will be moved up the chain and away from the more menial tasks.

There is, however, a decently sized counterargument to this point. Many people against the “robot evolution” seem to be making an argument that bases itself around this idea of, ‘What will happen to those who get replaced? Will these people be entirely removed from the workforce and thrown into the pile of unemployed workers?’ The answer to these questions, someone on the other side would posit, is plainly no. The shift in certain industries from human workers to robotic workers will not destroy the workforce, but instead create a new one. Instead of assembly line workers, we will have technicians who work on the automated machines on the line. Instead of truck drivers, we will have route managers who program in the best possible path for the self-driving truck to take. Another example that might hit a little closer to home for all the computer science majors out there, is that, instead of mindless data entry or low-level programming, algorithms would be created to more efficiently sort the data. Current workers in these fields would need to be trained in the maintenance of these processes, and then move on to higher level work. Those going to school now are already receiving this training.

The shift in certain industries from human workers to robotic workers will not destroy the workforce, but instead create a new one.

Of course, there are going to be some rough times in the switch to a fully automated workforce; people will lose jobs, families will have to adjust, and employees will need to find and train new skills to keep up with the growing and changing climate of industry work. Yet in the end, the benefits far outweigh the costs of the transition. Fewer money will be spent in the production of these goods, meaning lower prices for better items. The graduates transitioning into the workforce now will have the skills necessary to maintain the automated processes, as will those returning to school; all of this will result in a more technologically advanced society overall. The move may be scary, and rightfully so, but ultimately new things are always terrifying at first – once we learn how these things can benefit us and how we can use them to our advantage, we will be better off. We should no longer think of the future as a place filled with killer robots and controlled by SkyNet, but rather as a more cohesive and efficient world.

Cited Works

[1] Frey, Carl Benedikt. “THE FUTURE OF EMPLOYMENT: HOW SUSCEPTIBLE ARE JOBS TO COMPUTERISATION?” (n.d.): n. pag. Oxford Martin School. Oxford University, 17 Sept. 2013. Web. 20 Mar. 2017.

[2] Gaskell, Adi. “Automation And The Future Of Work.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 22 Dec. 2016. Web. 20 Mar. 2017.

[3] “Industrial Robot Statistics 2015.” International Federation of Robotics. N.p., 2015. Web. 20 Mar. 2017.

[4] McNeal, Marguerite. “Rise of the Machines: The Future Has Lots of Robots, Few Jobs for Humans.” Wired. Conde Nast, 06 Aug. 2015. Web. 20 Mar. 2017.

[5] Newcomer, Eric, and Alex Webb. “Uber Self-Driving Truck Packed With Budweiser Makes First Delivery in Colorado.” Bloomberg, 25 Oct. 2016. Web. 20 Mar. 2017.

[6] Scarola, Cory. “Six Job Types That Automation Will Reduce or Eliminate.” Inverse. N.p., 6 Mar. 2017. Web. 20 Mar. 2017.

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Mostly consisting of matter and definitely not tiny robots, I am a creative individual with a passion for, well, creating. Perusing a degree in Software Engineering, I hope to marry my programming and documentation knowledge with my true passion of art and design. Working two jobs in graphic design and seeking software internships, I hope to abolish all my free time in trade for favorable placement in the hierarchy of life.