Mind & Spirit

Janine’s Journal: Robots Are Coming to a Job Near You

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Technology keeps advancing and the repercussions are interesting to reflect upon. Join Janine Pumilia, our managing editor, as she considers various thoughts on this topic.

“The Jetsons” first aired in 1962. Rosie the robot was portrayed as part of the family, not as a job threat.

“The Jetsons” first aired in 1962. Rosie the robot was portrayed as part of the family, not as a job threat.

I saw a Wisconsin farmer using a robot to milk his cow, recently, on a public TV documentary. He said Bessie and friends really like the new Milkbot.

Such robots cost about $200,000 each but reduce the need for paid farm hands, who need employer-paid health insurance. I wonder what my late grandpa, Cal Evans, would have thought about Milkbots. I heard a lot of Man vs. Stubborn Cow stories from him. Today I’m hearing a lot of Man vs. Job-Stealing Robot stories.

About 15 years ago, I edited a national trade magazine called Robotics (even though I can’t program my own TV remote.) I attended trade shows where hundreds of robots efficiently performed thousands of tasks. None complained, showed up for work late, filed Workers’ Comp claims or expected a paycheck. I was told robots would someday perform surgery, revolutionize the workplace and open up many kinds of science, including nanotechnology – the manipulation of materials at the molecular level.

“Someday” came and robotic surgery is now old news. As for nanotechnology – the field is exploding.

When 3-D printers build an object, nanotechnology is at work. Some believe these printers will someday produce houses that cost a third of what we pay now.

“Wet nanotechnology” is the manipulation of DNA, protein, etc. Imagine a “nanoswimmer” programmed to move through the body and target cancer cells with drugs. It’s already in development. Imagine a 3-D “wet” printer that whips up custom-made livers or kidneys.

The National Science Foundation reports, “… Nanotechnology has the potential to enhance human performance, to bring sustainable development for materials, water, energy, and food, to protect against unknown bacteria and viruses, and even to diminish the reasons for breaking the peace.” Wow.

Along with robots and nanotechnology, artificial intelligence (AI) is evolving fast – too fast, says famous physicist Stephen Hawking, who warns AI could spell the end of us human folks.

As AI allows machines to get better at things like language, decision-making and perception, new frontiers will open up that we can’t yet imagine. But there may be a high price to pay in continuted job losses.

Toyota, which pioneered the robots that transformed the auto industry, this summer completed its first trial of domestic helper robots in North America. Jetsons, anyone? Apparently even service dogs should be fearing for their jobs.

So far, blue-collar workers are hardest hit by job displacement, which fuels angst in the American electorate. It will get worse.

Imagine the day millions of Teamsters lose their jobs to self-driving trucks like those which already debuted on the German Autobahn.

White-collar types aren’t safe, either. In Japan, robotic nurses are working in hospitals. Some kinds of stock traders, office workers, researchers, lawyers, accountants, inspectors, pharmacists, insurance adjusters, writers (yikes!) and other professionals are already looking over their shoulders.

We lost about 5.6 million manufacturing jobs between 2000 and 2010, most (88 percent) to automation, states a recent study by Ball State University. Illegal immigrants and bad foreign trade deals are politically expedient scapegoats, but are not the major cause of job loss. U.S. manufacturing has expanded about 2.2 percent per year, with growing productivity and fewer employees, says the report.

Optimists believe evolving technology will give rise to whole new categories of jobs, as the internet has done.

“Over and over again, the robot economy will invent work we can’t even dream of today, much as the internet gave birth to unforeseen careers,” writes Kevin Maney in Newsweek. “Nobody’s grandmother was a search engine optimization specialist. Today, that job pays pretty well.”

I hope he’s right. But many other smart folks are unconvinced, including Bill Gates. He’s floating the idea of a robot tax to at least slow the pace of job displacement.

A study by consulting firm PwC estimates that 38 percent of American jobs will be lost to robotics and AI by the early 2030s. Massive unemployment could be here in a decade and a half – which begs the question of who will purchase all those efficiently produced goods?

Robots aren’t known to be big spenders.

Forward-thinking countries are working to mitigate technology-related job loss so they can transition as peacefully as possible to an automation-dominated economy. They’re investing in science and research, seeing it as a big part of the solution.

By contrast, we’re about to gut the National Institutes of Health, the National Weather Service, the Department of Energy Office of Science, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Science Foundation – our leading U.S. research organizations.

The Luddites didn’t have much success staving off change and we won’t either.

The question is whether we’ll be in the driver’s seat of the future or in the back seat, whining about “the old days,” while others steer.

If Bessie the cow can adapt, so can we. Right?

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