September 11, 2018

Robots in the Workplace: Challenging the Rhetoric

Brain Corp
Brain Corp

Robots have held our imagination for almost 100 years. For decades, we’ve seen them on TV, in movies, and across popular culture. From The Forbidden Planet’sRobby the Robot to Honda’s Asimo, the world of robotics is progressing faster than ever. It was only in 1928 that W.H. Richard introduced Eric, the first humanoid robot ever created.

Eric was the first British robot, built in 1928

The idea of robots, however, is one that dates back to ancient times. In fact, the concept of “Automata” originated in ancient mythology with cultures like China and Greece attempting to build automated machines that resembled humans or animals. Unfortunately, modern popular culture has conditioned us to fear robots. Ask people to name their favorite robots and they’ll likely point to violent humanoids such as Robocop or The Terminator. And if robots are not killing us, they’re silently and relentlessly taking our jobs. Popular culture aside, robots are here. No, they’re not here to take over your job (or the world for that matter). Robots are here to enable us to be more efficient at home and at work. Advances in robotics may displace certain types of work, but historically they’ve been a net creator of jobs. Humans are resilient and will adapt to these technological changes by inventing entirely new industries, and by taking advantage of unique human capabilities that have instead been spent on repetitive tasks.

Increasing Adoption

Adoption of robots in the workplace has been, and will continue to be, a heated point of discussion. Concern about robots taking jobs is causing distress among employees, and debate across industries. More often than not, robots are portrayed as “job killers” - a label that contrasts with the factual evidence. Studies indicate that robots not only complement employee productivity, they also augment quality of work and wages for those taking on new responsibilities.

“AI will alter the labor and service environment in developed countries, but will help society take care of older people or address class sizes in schools. As we free labor up from things like manufacturing, we can shift it to some of these very human-centric needs.” - Bill Gates, Co-chair, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

When online retailer Boxed decided to use robots in their warehouses, the fear that the machines would take over resonated among employees.

"I had a lot of people asking me, 'What is going to happen to us?'" says Veronica Mena, a trainer for Boxed, recalling the anxiety that her co-workers expressed after company executives announced plans to open an automated warehouse in nearby Union, N.J.

Rather than cutting jobs, as most people feared, Boxed began to grow so quickly that they added a third shift. Rather than reducing labor, the workforce grew. The fear that robots would take jobs was inaccurate and misplaced.

Shaping the Future of Robotics

The real fear of robots and automation lies in the unknown: how will they affect the workplace? Despite the grim outlook reflected in the media, automation and robotics are driving job growth and helping fill skills gaps that many companies are experiencing across industries. A more nuanced view of history reveals that robots and automation have been at the forefront of economic growth for decades. The falling cost of robotics systems and continued breakthroughs in technology are driving the increasingly diverse use of robotics. According to ARK’s research, the cost of industrial robots will drop by roughly 65% by 2025. The average cost of an industrial robot dropped from $130K in 1995 to roughly $30K in 2018, allowing companies to scale their robotic operations. Combined with advances in machine learning and computer vision, cost reductions will further increase demand for robots as they expand into new industries and more applications.

Human Labor Will Remain Competitive

Industries like healthcare struggle with labor shortages. Experienced nurses with highly specialized skills are being lost to retirement at a faster rate than they are being replaced. In fact, the Health Resources and Services Administration projects that more than one-million registered nurses will reach retirement age within the next 10 to 15 years, with 55% of today’s RN workforce aged at least 50 years old. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nursing is listed among the top occupations in terms of job growth. The nursing workforce is expected to grow from 2.7 million employees in 2014 to 3.2 million in 2024, an increase of 439,300 or 16%. The Bureau also projects the need for 649,100 replacement nurses in the workforce, bringing the total number of job openings for nurses (due to growth and replacements) to over 1 million by 2024. Robotics and automation will help nurses focus more of their energy on patient care, increase efficiency, and make nursing a more appealing career prospect for younger people. Even landscaping companies have started to automate by using robotic mowers to cut grass and vegetation along interstates. The mowers are game changers in this industry. While robots perform these repetitive tasks, human landscapers focus on other higher value work such as scaling operations, improving quality of work, or for larger organizations, conducting environmental diagnostics.

Working Together

Some experts predict a future in which humans and robots will work together. Robots are best at handling the repetitive, mundane, dirty, dangerous, and delicate roles that people do not want to do or don’t do well, as well as jobs where there is a shortage of labor. Robotics and automation could assist with a variety of tasks from dispensing medication to helping with surgical procedures. Airports represent another opportunity for automation. Within the complex, sprawling environment of an airport, robots will assist with a variety of tasks like transporting luggage and delivering supplies. Seattle-Tacoma Airport uses BrainOS-enabled robotic floor scrubbing machines to keep congested terminals clean.

SeaTac Airport in Seattle via C&W Services

“It acts like my co-worker,” janitorial worker Jack Lloyd explains in a video from C&W Services about the machines. “I set it up, it works, and I’m doing something else.” Despite recent advancement in robotics and automation, there are many tasks that machines can’t do and won’t be able to do: jobs that require critical thinking, creativity, problem-solving, and innovating. Advances in automation and robotics allow people to offload repetitive tasks, enabling them to invest their attention and energy in activities where human creativity is needed. This article was originally featured on LinkedIn.

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