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A robot does the cooking at a restaurant in Hefei, China. 

CREDIT: Jianan Yu/Reuters

Will a Robot Take Your Job?

Robots and computers are learning to do many jobs held by humans. What does that mean for you?
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Meet the Mer-Bot

The staffers at the Henn-na Hotel near Nagasaki, Japan, are always friendly, report to work on time, and never call in sick. But they aren’t ordinary employees—they’re robots. At the world’s first hotel staffed almost entirely by machines, humanlike robots chat with guests, carry customers’ luggage, and deliver room service.

The hotel, which opened in 2015, may sound like fun, but it’s no laughing matter for the people who were passed over for jobs given to the robots. And those people are about to have a lot of company—not only in Japan but in the United States. According to researchers at Oxford University in England, nearly half of all U.S. jobs—including 70 percent of low-skilled professions—are at risk of being replaced by technology within the next two decades (see graphic below)

Worldwide, many hospitals are already using robots to run lab tests and help diagnose patients. Restaurants are relying on computers to take orders and prepare food. And in recent years, many bank tellers, tollbooth operators, cashiers, tax preparers, and travel agents have been replaced by machines.

But as robots take on more work, what will happen to human workers? Historically, technological advances have created more jobs than they’ve eliminated. But today’s sophisticated automation—including driverless cars and robots that can read facial expressions—may prove to be a bigger threat to jobs than the technology of previous decades. 

“Machines are learning to do human things that they never, ever could do before,” says Andrew McAfee, a scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. 

The Industrial Revolution

The struggle between technology and jobs has been going on for centuries. In 1589, Queen Elizabeth I of England refused to give inventor William Lee a patent for a machine that would have replaced hand knitting. She worried that the device would eliminate the need for human workers and lead to widespread unemployment and poverty.

During the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries, the rise of factories and power-driven machines eventually did eliminate the need for many skilled laborers who worked by hand, including carpenters and weavers. But factories also created new job opportunities, especially for unskilled workers. For decades, millions of people worked in factories on assembly lines, producing everything from cars to electronics. But beginning in the 1960s, many factory workers began to be replaced by machines that could perform the same tasks faster and cheaper. 

Today, low-skilled jobs like janitor and waiter are still the ones that are most threatened by technology. And companies like Tesla, Google, and Uber are developing driverless cars that could one day make cab or bus drivers a thing of the past. Even tractor-trailer drivers could become obsolete: German automaker Daimler’s Inspiration Truck, a self-driving 18-wheeler, will soon hit the road in Nevada.

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A receptionist robot at the Henn-na Hotel in Japan (left); Robots move pallets of merchandise around an Amazon warehouse in California (right)

CREDIT: Shizuo Kambayashi/AP Images (receptionist); Brandon Bailey/AP Images (warehouse)

But increasingly, complex jobs across many industries are at risk too. Many law firms, for example, are using computers to draft contracts and search through documents, cutting down on the need for legal assistants. In hospitals, machines are being used to administer anesthesia for certain medical procedures. Robots are even performing some surgeries. 

Despite the threat to some industries, however, technology is also creating new jobs. But they will require a lot of training and, in many cases, a college degree, according to technology writer Howard Rheingold. 

“The jobs that the robots will leave for humans will be those that require thought and knowledge,” he told the Pew Research Center. “In other words, only the best-educated humans will [be able to] compete with machines.”

What makes things more challenging, according to Tom Standage, digital editor for The Economist, is that technology is now advancing at a faster pace than at any other point in history. 

“Previous technological revolutions happened much more slowly,” he told Pew, “so people had longer to retrain” for new jobs.

No Sick Days

Why are so many industries replacing human workers with machines? For starters, robots are able to perform certain tasks faster and more efficiently than humans. Machines never get sick, don’t take time off, and don’t need to be paid. Often, it’s cheaper for businesses to use technology than to hire enough human workers to do the same jobs. 

The National Institutes of Health, for example, is using several robotic systems to run lab tests. A single robot can run 3 million tests every week. A person would need to work eight hours a day, seven days a week, for 12 years to run that many tests.

Aside from their speed, robots can put themselves in dangerous situations so that people can remain out of harm’s way. Experts say that sophisticated robots will soon serve as first responders following disasters, like earthquakes, floods, and wildfires. 

Robots might even be used in battle. Former U.S. Army General Robert Cone has predicted that robots could replace thousands of soldiers within the next few years, which could save many lives.

Another upside is that technology is creating new jobs that didn’t exist even a decade ago, like app developer and social media manager. Tech companies like Google, Apple, and Facebook employ millions of people. As long as robots are part of the workforce, there will also be a need for people to design, build, and maintain them.

In a less direct way, too, technology can improve the economy and spur job growth. By creating products more efficiently, for example, machines enable companies to lower their prices. When goods are more affordable, demand for them can increase, thereby requiring companies to hire more people to meet that demand. 

How to Compete

Since machines are set to play an even bigger role in employment in the coming years, experts say that job seekers will need to be well-versed in technology. To make sure that young people today will be able to compete in the future job market, President Obama has called for a $3 billion investment in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education. 

But does that mean only people in STEM fields will have a job in the future economy? Not necessarily, experts say. While demand will continue to rise for people who can write computer code and build robots, many other types of jobs will be necessary too. For one thing, machines don’t understand emotion and are poor at problem solving, critical thinking, and creativity. Most robots aren’t yet adaptable or versatile. 

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Self-driving cars are being developed by Tesla, Google, and Uber.

CREDIT: Jared Wickerham/AP Images

That means that a scientist developing robotics systems might have a safe job, but so would a novelist, plumber, and teacher. (Japan and Singapore have experimented with robot teachers, however, and students at the Georgia Institute of Technology were recently fooled by a computer program pretending to be a human during an online course.) Ultimately, many experts say, the high-tech machines being developed today will help us far more than they’ll hurt us.

“Technology is not something to be afraid of—just the opposite,” says Ken Goldberg, a robotics expert at the University of California, Berkeley. “Robots are being designed to inspire and enhance humans, not eliminate us.”

 

SOURCE: The Future of Employment,  Oxford University

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