Roblog: These Bots Mean Business

February 23, 2012

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Roblog is a weekly column dedicated to understanding the world of robotics. If science fiction is right and the impending robot apocalypse is real, it can’t hurt to be prepared. Come back every Wednesday for a new blog of robot rants.

When people think of working robots, assembly lines  are probably the first thing that springs to mind. Sooner or later, however, robots will leave the factory and pick up new work. The idea of a robotic soldier or chauffeur is pretty spooky, but it won’t be long before bots will put us all out of business!

Assembly Line Bot

This robot knows how to get the work done. | Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user Phasmatisnox.

At UCSF, robots run an automated pharmacy. There’s software that can do document review that used to be done solely by paralegals. Google’s automated car project could take jobs from taxi and bus drivers. Even soldiers could be replaced by robots someday if companies like Boston Dynamics have their way. Robots are now able to do many things that people can do, especially when the job is fairly predictable and has a straightforward goal.

According to two MIT economists, humans don’t need to panic yet. Andrew McAfee says that, for the near future, the shift towards robot workers will affect mid-level jobs most drastically. Low-skilled work like dog grooming and restaurant waiting should be fine, assures David Autor. The cost of making robots that could perform these simple, yet mechanically complex tasks isn’t justified by the job’s low pay. High skilled jobs like engineers and health-care providers should also be safe for the time being. It’s the middle-of-the-road jobs like telemarketing or accounting that will most likely be altered by the presence of robots. Technology often makes a workplace more efficient, but it isn’t always kind to the average, middle-skilled worker.

How can people ensure themselves some job security in a world where robots are rampant? Be the person that designs the robots, for one. If more and more robots are needed to take over simple jobs, someone will have to make them. Robots also don’t have the management skills to run companies, so managerial positions should also be safe. Just be wary of projects like RepRap, a robot that can make it’s own body and someday might be able to clone itself. If projects like this have any long term success, who knows what robots will do.

With robots becoming able to do almost everything that people can do, it’s hard to imagine any profession that won’t be affected by robots, in some way. It seems like becoming a starving artist might actually be a career worth trying. After all, robots can’t really make art, can they?