Displacement or Replacement

In his Newsweek article, best-selling author Kevin Maney relates the ongoing displacement of workers by robots to the revolution at the gas pump during the 1970s. While New Jersey and Oregon law still protects the full-service jobs of gas attendants, the vast majority of the 168,000 gas stations in America now use self-serve machinery. The self-serve pump eliminated many jobs, but Maney notes the benefit was a more educated society because parents encouraged their children to go to college to learn professional skills more widely desired in an advanced economic environment. He believes the advancement of robots will have a similar effect, pushing people to further their education and skills. The exponential value of robotics will far exceed the costs associated with short-term job displacement.

Robots are Already at Work

Instead of replacing humans altogether, today’s robotics companies are developing bots to work alongside them to make the workforce more productive by allowing them to spend time on more complex tasks. Here are some examples of robots working side-by-side with humans:

  • Restaurants: Miso Robotics has developed Flippy, a robot that flips burger patties, keeps track of cooking time, and collaborates with the chef. CaliBurger, a chain restaurant headquartered in Seattle, is already testing the robot in their Pasadena restaurant and will implement the robot in 50 locations over the next two years. Take a look at Flippy in action:
  • The Operating Room: The Mayo Clinic defines Robotic surgery as allowing doctors to perform complex surgeries with more precision than traditional techniques. Surgery with the da Vinci Surgical System was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2000 and is being used all over Europe and the U.S. While this system has a wide range of applications, it is usually used in minimally invasive procedures such as cardiac, urologic, and gynecologic surgeries.
  • Farms: Spread is a Japanese sustainable production company that has created the Techno Farm, an effort to change the way we harvest our food. In the Spread Vegetable Factory, robots will be able to harvest 30,000 heads of lettuce per day. The system plants the seeds, waters the plant, and even trims the lettuce after harvest. In addition, Spread says that their system will reduce energy usage by 30%, cut labor costs by 50%, and recycle 98% of the water used in growing the crops.                                                                                Spread Techno Farm
  • Warehouses: Locus Robotics has created a helper for warehouse workers. Quiet Logistics, a fulfillment provider for apparel e-tailers, uses these robots in their warehouse to more quickly and accurately grab products to prepare for shipping. Check out this quick video from Locus:
  • Retail: Similar to the usage in warehouses, some retail stores are already using robotic rovers to help guide customers through their large stores. Lowe’s began using OSHbots in their San Jose Orchard Supply Hardware store in 2014 and phase one of their 7-month rollout of LoweBots started in September of 2016. These robots are expected to allow employees to spend much of their time assisting shoppers. The robots perform more simple tasks, which they can do in multiple languages, like answer basic questions, and help customers navigate the store, and monitor inventory.

Experts continue to debate whether humans will be replaced in the workforce by robots due to their ability to more efficiently and effectively perform tasks. Most experts agree on one thing, education systems across the world need to adapt to prepare their youth for the job market of the future, which will include a vast number of robots. While it will be interesting to see what jobs will end up going the way of the gas pump attendants, one thing is for certain: no one wants to be the attendant themselves.