We’ve all been following the numbers on unemployment recently. Twenty-two million U.S. unemployment claims in the past few weeks; the worst since the great depression. Many of these losses are a result of our social distancing.
As a roboticist, this experience has me thinking, “how will this trend towards social distancing drive automation technologies?” Will the result of this pandemic be the rise of the robots? What will that mean for jobs?
Automation has already been a big driver in job loss. Between 2000 and 2010 the US lost approximately 5.8 million manufacturing jobs, roughly one third the manufacturing workforce, while maintaining roughly the same productive output. According to a study by Ball State University, 80% of this can be attributed to automation and technology. Over the past 10 years, advances in robotics and A.I. are permitting us to move robots out of highly precise factory environments and into unstructured environments, retail, streets, and kitchens. It isn’t just the roughly four million truckers at risk of losing their jobs to self-driving trucks, it’s fast food, medical, and retail. McKinsey estimates A.I. and automation will displace 400 million workers by 2030. I feel that is a conservative estimate.
Now many roboticists reading this may doubt the field’s capabilities to deliver the A.I. needed to accomplish these lofty goals. Narrow A.I. systems are deeply flawed and nowhere near as capable as the media gives them credit for being. Anybody who has seen the laughable performance of robots in the DARPA robotics challenge can tell you we have some time before the robots rise up.
So, are people’s jobs safe from the robots? Maybe not entirely. There is one robotic technology that is advancing to the cusp of changing the world. Good old-fashioned tele-operation. Now, all roboticists have had our problems with joystick tele-operation. It’s hard to control a humanoid robot with a joystick. Our 21st Century technology was stuck with an early 20th Century user interface, but that is changing. New advances in Virtual Reality control of robots are going to lead to a User Experience (UX) revolution for robot tele-operation, making driving a robot as easy as moving your body.
For the first time in human history, physical labor will become decoupled from geography. The person striking for $15-an-hour and hazard pay during the COVID-19 crises may in the near future have to compete with somebody strapping on a VR suit in a developing country to control a robot for $15-a-day. This may seem like science fiction, but it is an area that is being heavily invested in in research, the $10 million dollar Avatar X-prize being a drop in the bucket compared to the funding the Japanese government is sinking into developing this tech. Robotic avatars are about to become big business.
The question that faces us now and in this potential robotic future will be the same: How do we as a society look out for people who are displaced from the workforce, whether it is due to a pandemic, or due to technology? We can look to programs like UBI but ultimately this comes down to how we choose to cooperate with each other to meet human needs. Robots taking jobs should be exciting news as people move away from repetitive work. We need to focus on building ladders for helping each other. Whether it’s from robots or COVID-19 there’s a hard road of change ahead. Help who you can, when you can, and if this pans out like prior depressions and industrial revolutions the changes we make will build a better society on the other side of the crises.