Robotic Revolution

August 26th, 2014:

“Humans Need Not Apply”, the latest viral video by CGP Grey, is an interesting yet unsettling 15-minute documentary about how technology and process automation is making many everyday human jobs obsolete.  No occupations, it suggests, will be immune to the inevitable.  Positions ranging from minimum wage laborers, to lawyers and white-collar workers, creative and artistic occupations, even medical professionals, are all in jeopardy of this robotic revolution.

The automation engineers of today are highly skilled programmers capable of writing code to teach robots how to perform various jobs not only more efficiently and accurately, but also at a lower cost.  Take a look at Baxter, the industrial robot which is capable of learning many low-wage jobs just by having it watch and record your movements.  Converting its base price of $25,000 to an hourly workers wage, puts Baxter at around $12 per hour on a 40 hour work week for just one year.  However, since Baxter is a robot, it does not need to take breaks other than the occasional maintenance check, it is capable of working 24/7 without being paid overtime or requiring expensive health care or other employee benefits, or a salary over many years.  Granted, there are limitations to what Baxter is capable of performing, such as small assembly or sensing tension.  It is only a matter of time before all these small tasks are within its limits.

Baxter, a general purpose robot, is just one example of technology being used in general purpose situations.  Self-driving cars, or “autos”, are being tested extensively and will be revolutionary, most likely improving human safety in the future.  As of April 2014, Google has stated that their autonomous cars have driven nearly 700,000 miles, and only 2 times were there ever any accidents, both of which ironically were due to human error.  The documentary gives plenty of other examples of automation, or bots, already working in professional areas such as law, finance, medicine, and creative arts.

A major point of the video is that this stuff isn’t science fiction:  robots are here, and vast amounts of automation are already happening behind the scenes in labs and warehouses today. One thing to ponder is that bots can now teach themselves how to do things the programmer could never teach them to do.  Think about that over your next cup of coffee.  Give them a goal, show them “correctly done stuff”, and the bot can figure out how to do the job.

Now you may be wondering just how soon this robotic revolution will overtake many of these jobs.  A study performed by the University of Oxford in September 2013 examined over 700 different occupations and determined that “nearly half of US jobs could be susceptible to computerization over the next two decades”. If we move towards a world where most jobs are replaced by cheaper, more-efficient robots, what will be left for the human workforce if we do not begin to adapt for the inevitable?   How much time do we really have to implement new curriculums in our educational systems and to train/retrain millions of humans... but to do what?  The more advanced automation becomes, the less need there will be for many of these human performed jobs.

-  Jr. Mechanical Engineer Nate Lavins, Goddard Technologies