Amid all the job losses of the Great Recession, there is one category of worker that the economic disruption has been good for: nonhumans.
From self-service checkout lines at the supermarket to industrial robots armed with saws and taught to carve up animal carcasses in slaughter-houses, these ever-more-intelligent machines are now not just assisting workers but actually kicking them out of their jobs.
Automation isn’t just affecting factory workers, either. Some law firms now use artificial intelligence software to scan and read mountains of legal documents, work that previously was performed by highly paid human lawyers.
“Robots continue to have an impact on blue-collar jobs, and white-collar jobs are under attack by microprocessors,” says Edward Leamer, an economics professor at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management and director of the UCLA Anderson Forecast, a survey of the U.S. and California economies. Leamer says the recession permanently wiped out 2.5 million jobs. U.S. gross domestic product has climbed back to pre-recession levels, meaning we’re producing as much as before, only with 6 percent fewer workers. To be sure, robotics are not the only job killers out there, with outsourcing stealing far more gigs than automation.
Jeff Burnstein, president of the Robotics Industry Association, a trade group in Ann Arbor, Mich., argues that robots actually save U.S. jobs. His logic: companies that embrace automation might use fewer workers, but that’s still better than firing everyone and moving the work overseas.
It’s not that robots are cheaper than humans, though often they are. It’s that they are better. “In some cases the quality requirements are so stringent that even if you wanted to have a human do the job, you couldn’t,” Burnstein says. He cites General Motors, which uses robots to lay a bead of sealant on windshields, because humans can’t do the job as precisely.
Same goes for surgeons, who are using robotic systems to perform an ever-growing list of operations—not because the machines save money but because, thanks to the greater precision of robots, the patients recover in less time and have fewer complications, says Dr. Myriam Curet, chief medical adviser at Intuitive Surgical in Sunnyvale, Calif. The surgery bots don’t replace surgeons—you still need a surgeon to drive the robot. And they’re not cheap. Prices go as high as $2.2 million. Nevertheless, Intuitive sold 400 of them just last year. If you’ve had a prostatectomy recently, chances are a robot was involved.
Surgeons may survive the robot invasion, but others at the hospital might not be so lucky, as iRobot, maker of the Roomba, a robot vacuum cleaner, has been showing off Ava, a three-foot-tall droid on wheels that carries a tablet computer. iRobot reckons Ava could be used as a courier in a hospital. And once you’re home, recovering, Ava could let you talk to your doctor, so there’s no need to send someone to your house. That “mobile telepresence” could be useful at the office. If you’re away on a trip, you can still attend a meeting. Just connect via videoconferencing software, so your face appears on Ava’s screen.
Is any job safe? I was hoping to say “journalist,” but researchers are already developing algorithms that can gather facts and write a news story. Which means that a few years from now, a robot could be writing this column. And who will read it? Well, there might be a lot of us hanging around with lots of free time on our hands.