Will workplace automation leave anybody standing?

Are there limits to workplace automation? Not in the way you might expect

Are there limits to workplace automation? Not in the way you might expect

What will be the spark of the Great Robot Rebellion that will end the era of human rule on our planet? Here’s a theory: the robots will become disgruntled with minimum wage. That’s the job level they are poised to flood, taking over more and more tasks in the service industry. And if the robots don’t end up happy about it, well, the prospect doesn’t seem likely to please the current flesh-based workforce either.

Take that most emblematic of minimum wage positions, flipping—and wrapping—burgers. A Silicon Valley startup called Momentum Machines has demonstrated a robot that can fry a patty, dress it, slap it on a bun and wrap it, all without including a single stray teenage hair. “Our device isn’t meant to make employees more efficient,” co-founder Alexandros Vardakostas told the website Xconomy.com. “It’s meant to completely obviate them.”

Data entry, delivery, hotel clerks and shipping jobs are among the most vulnerable to automation, professor Moshe Vardi of Rice University told the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Meanwhile self-driving vehicles are casting a shadow on the future of driving jobs. Will a robot enemy cause warring taxi and Uber drivers to unite against a common foe? Will truck drivers stand grimly behind 18-wheeler blockades, awaiting an implacable army of self-driving attackers? Are we facing a jobless robot future?

A World Economic Forum report entitled The Future of Jobs suggests that more automation won’t be so much about replacing workers as changing the nature of their jobs. Workers will need new skills. “Even those jobs that are less directly affected by technological change and have a largely stable employment outlook—say, marketing or supply chain professionals targeting a new demographic in an emerging market—may require very different skill sets just a few years from now as the ecosystems within which they operate change.”

We’ve survived mechanical workplace intruders before. Refrigerators, for example, were giant metal job-killers, wiping out the entire ice industry. And there still exists in India a widely used domestic laundry sector. Historically, technological progress has been absorbed by modern economies as the workforce moves into new industries. We benefit from greater efficiency, and the streets do not fill with idle ice men and Pony Express riders.

Fear seems to outpace excitement when people consider the prospect of increasing automation. But arguments about job loss tend to flip around. Some decry the plight of the expendable worker, victim of a soulless techno-future driven by big business mechanization. Yet in the next breath they might well point out that climate change will require a wholesale industrial shift away from fossil fuels. This shift will of course entail job losses. But it’s the price of progress, and, the argument goes, new energy technologies will bring new jobs. Maybe some of those will involve robots. As we know from Terminator II, sometimes the robots are the good guys.

There are limits to automation, surely. The fuzzy edges of judgment, that je ne sais quoi human touch that, Blade Runner notwithstanding, cannot be replicated. The remarkable facility of the human brain defies true simulation. But where are the boundaries beyond which only humans can advance? Perhaps not where we blithely assume. Robots could one day be corporate leaders. Writing in Fast Company, futurist Liz Alexander points out that the image of the masterful CEO whose guidance is indispensable may be no more than executive suite hubris. In the areas of strategic planning, hiring and promoting profitability, more advanced automated systems could someday replace highly paid meat bags. In the same way that indexed funds often outperform managed variety, CEOs often claim to be masters of generating profit, yet studies show that as a group they tend to turn in results that are no better than random. Robots can hire without prejudice, a task repeated studies have shown is difficult for humans to pull off. And people tend to rely too much on their own past experience when predicting the future—automated systems could soon prove more capable of predicting future trends.

Robot mastery—it may not require a hostile takeover. Perhaps just a shareholders’ vote.