Good robot vs very bad robot - your robots-change-work primer

Profile picture for user jreed By Jon Reed November 1, 2013
Summary:
From the inspirational to the far-fetched to the downright scary, robots are infiltrating the modern workforce. Here's your good robot/bad robot primer.

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The most frequent tag I apply in my newsreader is not cloud, not mobile, but robots. Yep, you got that right. From the inspirational to the far-fetched to the downright scary, robots are taking over my feed and infiltrating the modern workforce.

I don't know about you, but I find that holding court on robotics is always a winning conversational move at cocktail parties and holiday gatherings, so in that spirit, here's your good robot/bad robot primer.

Arguing about robots and job creation

To frame the debate, we have a rather extraordinary Computerworld piece entitled Gartner's dark vision for tech jobs from October, where Computerworld reports of Gartner's decision to not only warn of the impact of automation on the enterprise, but to recommend an immediate course of action:

The job impacts from innovation are arriving rapidly, according to Gartner. Unemployment, now at about 8%, will get worse. Occupy Wall Street-type protests will arrive as early as next year as machines increasingly replace middle-class workers in high cost, specialized jobs. In businesses, CIOs in particular, will face quandaries as they confront the social impact of their actions.

Gartner sees impact across industries and job levels, from transportation systems to construction work, from mining to health care. This sentence catches the eye: 'With IT costs at 4% of sales for all industries, there's very little left to cut in IT, but there is a great opportunity to cut labor.' 

Yes, Gartner has something to gain (publicity) from stating such alarming positions (which come from its 'maverick' research group intended to take dramatic/controversial stances). But Gartner is not alone. Erik Sherman warns of our 'robot overlords' in an October Moneywatch column:

While automation can perform an increasing number of tasks, many people think the effects are limited. After all, if you're in a professional or creative arena, and not assembling nuts and bolts on a factory floor, you're safe, right? Not any more. The increased sophistication of software and hardware are already replacing jobs that not long ago many would have assumed beyond the capacity of mechanical devices.

To support his argument that automation is surging upstream into sophisticated white collar functions, Sherman cites examples like IBM's Watson for medical diagnosis, along with Johnson & Johnson new system called Sedasys, which can provide anesthesia during a colonoscopy without a doctor and will be on the market next year. Sherman doesn't mention self-driving cars, nor did he touch on a startling example I witnessed in Vegas: the animated (and eerily effective) poker card dealer. (Yup, not exactly a robot, but a similar automation-of-jobs principle).

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Robots create jobs - sunny side up

The counter-argument is that innovation always creates at least as many jobs as it sheds. In a pros-and-cons piece, Salon lays out the innovation argument as it applies to robotics:

In a recent brief to the Congressional Robotics Advisory, Jeff Burnstein, president of the Association for Advancing Automation reported that robotics have created 10 million (human) jobs through 2011 with tens of millions more to come in the next 20 years or so. Robot penetration in U.S. companies, said Burnstein, is only at about the 10% mark so far, adding that, 'A very large segment of small– and medium–size companies who may have the most to gain are just now beginning to seriously investigate robotics.'

As per Salon, robotics advocates advance three points in support of robots-as-job-creators:

  • Only companies that embrace robotics will survive
  • Robots will take jobs humans don't want
  • Robots will create new industries that spawn new jobs

On the first point, the Salon article cites the example of Marlin Steel, a Baltimore-based company that now employs four times more people needed to supervise the robots fueling its growth. The second point seems tenuous, only because humans would arguably like to have input on which jobs they do and don't want. There are a few glaring exceptions, such as robots that can wade through (and clean up) toxic waste - even if they look a bit too 'Terminator prototype' for my liking.

The third point, about creating entire new industries via robotics, carries the most weight for the 'good robots' position, though the example cited in the article about the high-growth drone industry carries an edge. The prospect of a multi-billion dollar market funding 100,000 jobs in the U.S. alone by 2025 sounds swell - but it raises questions for those who don't fancy the idea of creepy hovering objects over street corners.

Good robot/bad robot link selections

Here's some links that add color to the debate:

Verdict

There are plenty of nuanced takes on this topic I didn't get to (Mother Jones, Slate), but that doesn't matter because we're not going to settle this anytime soon. For my part, I lean towards the dark side on this topic, but not too dark, because the grim position on robots-eat-jobs tends to be fatalistic and luddite - two attitudes I don't count amongst my flaws. (Of course, if this robot dog chases me down and guts me, I might change my stance.)

If a fatalistic take on robots is lazy, so is the view that automation will always leave a slew of new jobs in its wake. When we take positions of inevitability, we run the risk of overlooking our own accountability to creatively participate in the future we seek. Robots are here to stay. The rest is up to us.

Image credit: Female android © deloan – sxc.hu

Disclosure: no robots were harmed in the authoring of this article.