With the Emergence of Robotics, Is there Still Room for Humans in the Workforce?

5 Sep, 2017

By: Randy Thompson

At a recent family lunch, I mentioned to my sons, both Millennials now in the workforce, about how I am seeing more and more investigation into, not to mention the deployment of, robotics in distribution networks. I told them about the Marble trial in San Francisco, where they’ve deployed rolling robots to close the last-mile gap and deliver meals and other consumables directly to consumers. These devices amble along the sidewalks, stop at red lights, change course to stay out of the way of human traffic and never hurl back insults when yelled at.

Now, I thought this latest generation would embrace such thinking. So imagine my surprise when consensus was: “Great. Just one more way to take jobs away from people. Pretty soon, we’ll have nothing to do. Machines will doing everything for us. How am I supposed to make a living?”

It’s a natural response. One that no doubt occurred when the first petroleum-fueled vehicles began displacing horses and buggies, no doubt many a farrier’s family pondered the same thing. But the same would be true about the folks who made a living trapping beavers and turning them into stovepipe hats. Or folks who made typewriters, 35mm cameras and film processing equipment, cassette recorders, wall phones, tube televisions. The list is long.

The bottom line: We are in an era of rapid, disruptive change in nearly all segments of the economy. Unique to humans, we can adapt, we can alter our paths and careers. Gone are the days when one graduates from college, trade school or apprenticeship programs and spends the next 50 years in a single vertical. We need to transfers our skills — on short notice — to entirely different verticals.

Consider the overall gain to the economy in smaller, more rural areas, where there is still plenty of cheap land but where labor is constrained. If instead of trying to hire and retain a human, countywide workforce for near minimum wage jobs, they deployed a robotics solution for the most repetitive tasks. That would lead to meaningful work for local construction contractors, as well as installation technicians, programmers and maintenance workers, all higher paid, all needed long-term to keep the place running.

Although at first, this may seem bleak, I believe that like any other disruptive influence in our global economy, there is plenty of room for both forms of production. Humans are needed in spaces requiring nuanced thinking, reason, creativity, problem-solving and greater physical or dexterous skills than robots will have in our lifetimes. Know anyone who thinks it would be fun to watch robots suit up on Sundays and replace the likes of Dak Prescott of the Dallas Cowboys with a more agile and less whiny version of C-3PO?

Me neither.

More practically, there’s been a lot of talk recently about self-guided vehicles and their efficacy. Yes, the concept sounds great, but these highly predictable vehicles have to share the road with us highly unpredictable humans. However, the idea of a line of such vehicles jamming the highways in Dallas because they will only go the speed limit, thus hindering the rest of us carbon-based lifeforms who push well beyond posted speeds, is not at all appealing.

So, for my son who was most worried about being displaced, it’s going to be a while before anyone wants to listen to a robot teach U.S. History or play the banjo and sing. You’re safe, son.  T&ID