Could your new coworker be a robot?
As if you didn’t have enough to worry about with death, taxes and who’s going to direct “The Hobbit” now that Guillermo del Toro has left the project, here’s something else: robots are going to take over your workplace and your career is in danger.
The slow infiltration of bots into the workplace is not news. Anyone who has ever called directory assistance, or any large company’s customer service department, has had to deal with one of those smug fembots. Or you might have been snarked at by an automated checkout at Dominion Superstore (“[I SAID] Place the ITEM in the BAG!! [You #*&@^%!]” Oh, they don’t say it but it’s implied.) But the bots are moving into more and more workplaces, slowly, but surely. And there is nothing you can do to stop them.
A Bloomberg Businessweek article from this month bears the headline “Your new co-worker may be a robot,” which sounds cool at first – because you could talk to your robot co-worker about Hoarders, and I bet, because a robot probably has a really uncluttered mind, it would have some very interesting perspectives on that show – until you realize that, if your co-worker is a robot, it’s probably only a matter of time before your job is filled by one too. And then it’s less cool.
The Bloomberg story says, “Thanks to more advanced sensors and safety technology that can prevent them from injuring people, robots are moving beyond factories and into different types of work. As robots and workers interact more extensively, manufacturers are coping with dramatic expectations from their human counterparts and trying to moderate employees’ emotional responses by building a measure of cuteness into the machines.”
There is still some measure of Terminator-inspired robot fear among North Americans (they are better accepted in Japan) and another challenge for would-be buyers will be cost. But it’s likely only a matter of time before the “cuteness” wins us over. And prices will eventually come down.
El Camino Hospital in Silicon Valley, California, has robots transporting food, medicine, lab samples and garbage. Crate & Barrel, Diapers.com, and Gap are using robots in warehouses to fulfill orders faster. Already this has alarming implications for warehouse workers and people who transport things. And as Artificial Intelligence advances, it will have the same implications for pretty much everyone else.**
They don’t take breaks or vacations; you don’t have to pay them benefits; they can work in the dark! Their merits are seemingly endless.
Worried yet? You should be, according to Marshall Brain . He is the founder of HowStuffWorks.com and author of the online Robotic Nation series, and has clearly given this stuff a lot of thought. I asked him if there were ANY professions that are safe from a robot takeover. His answer? No. But you don’t necessarily have to freak out just yet.
“There probably are not any jobs that robots won’t do,” Brain tells me, “But there are jobs that will stay in the human realm longer than others. There is nothing to worry about in the short term. For example, people who work on construction sites or in retail stores will not lose their jobs next year, or in five years.” But, he says “they will lose their jobs.”
So, I ask him, how can one secure one’s career against a robot takeover? “Own a business,” he says. “And robotify it as soon as the technology becomes available. If not that, then try to be a high-level executive/politician/bureaucrat in a business, government, organization, etc.” Brain also suggests you consider “a trade that pays well but may be hard to automate because of its intricacy. Plumbing repair, for example, is not something that will be easily automated in the short term because in old houses it can be extremely complicated.” Or, obviously, a career in robotics.
OK, so that conversation wasn’t as reassuring as I’d hoped. But for-warned is for-armed, right? At least you know the bots are coming. And now you have something to talk about with your co-workers around the lunchroom. Unless your co-worker is a robot. That might get a little awkward.
**Even the world’s oldest profession is not safe, according to AI researcher David Levy. That’s just one of the arguments made in his book Love + Sex With Robots, in which Levy postulates that robots will make viable sexual and romantic partners for humans by the year 2050.