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Relax: Robots (Probably) Aren’t Going to Steal our Jobs

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The robot revolution is coming.

It’s going to make humans redundant; autonomous machines are going to steal our jobs in much the same way that the printing press and stocking frame put 19th century textile workers out of business. It’s true; you can ask anybody. The Guardian says so, as does The Financial Review, News.com and the BBC. But what these organisations never quite get around to telling us are the specifics of how robots are going to steal our jobs. Just that it’s going to happen. They point to the primarily automated Amazon warehouses and Uber’s push for self-driving cars as a sign of this coming revolution, but don’t have much in the way of ideas beyond that.

That’s because the revolution isn’t coming. At least, not how everybody thinks it will, and not anytime soon. The idea that robots will somehow take our jobs is born out of an  “amazingly shallow analysis” of economic trends and a fundamental misunderstanding of what automation actually entails.

An automated Amazon warehouse
An automated Amazon warehouse. Via CNN.

A Guardian article titled “Robots will destroy our jobs – and we’re not ready for it” points the proverbial finger at a ‘Create Your Taste’ kiosk at the writer’s local McDonald’s. For those unfamiliar with the devices, the kiosks are “automated touch-screen system that allows customers to create their own burgers without interacting with another human being.” The writer states that it’s “impossible to say” how many jobs have been lost to the kiosks as McDonald’s has been reluctant to release numbers. This is very worrying, because McDonald’s employs millions of people around the world and often provides them with valuable workplace experience.

But here’s the thing: those kiosks in no way replace  humans.

When they were first introduced the ‘Create Your Taste’ kiosks served the specific purpose of allowing people to make their own burgers by choosing the ingredients. This had the effect of creating a totally new menu, one that required more staff and new training for existing staff. The kiosk simply streamlined a process that would have otherwise led to huge lines. I would know; I spent a sad couple of years flipping burgers there and while I’m no fan of the place I find it highly unlikely that ‘Create Your Taste’ put anybody out of work.

The kiosks now allow people to order from the standard menu as well, but this doesn’t appear to have impacted the number of staff required to keep a McDonald’s franchise running. Ask  the front counter.

A Create Your Taste kiosk. Via Lifehacker.

That’s the face of the robot revolution – automating a process that would otherwise require human workers, allowing them to be retrained or sent to other areas of the workplace. In the car industry, increased automation of the construction process resulted in manufacturers making more cars and employing more people. Robots did the dirty, dangerous stuff while humans programmed or directed them. And self-checkouts at supermarkets might mean less human-staffed checkouts, but they still require humans to keep an eye on the screens and humans to repair them.

Mind you, don’t think for a second that if business owners could replace their employees with cheap robots who don’t whine, they would. There have been whole revolutions fought based on that possibility. But business owners can’t. There is no doubt that a fully automated industry would have disastrous consequences for human workers, but the actual probability of somebody managing to fully automate an industry seems (for the foreseeable future) low.

Robots at the Tesla factory putting together a car
Robots at a Tesla factory. Via the LA Times.

Processes that could potentially be automated but haven’t been – manual labour, cleaning, etc – would require a quantum leap in robot complexity before humans would be out of a job. Robots are best suited for that kind of thing. They don’t kick up a fuss when it’s hot, or when they have to scrape tape off the floor for ten hours, or when the boss wants them to get down in a hole that isn’t properly shored up. But the kind of precision required to use so much as a pickaxe is still a long way off in robots. Even military robots are comically clumsy creatures, and they’re receiving a hell of a lot more funding than your run of the mill automaton.

BigDog, a military robot, has the ability to run at 4 miles an hour over rough terrain. Watch out? Via Hexapolis.

And that’s without getting into the potential benefits that robots replacing human jobs could have. Technological innovation allows for societal progress and frees up time for leisure and education. There would be a significant rise in unemployment should robots actually become the primary workforce, and as yet there is no fix for that without getting into the territory of hypothetical social welfare measures (like universal basic income). Of course, the loss of manufacturing and labouring jobs can be countered by putting those hands to good use, like at this robot-driven house-building plant where workers need not have an engineering or software background to apply.

Robots are only going to take our jobs if we insist on training another generation to do work that robots can. If we train them to do technical work that robots can’t, or to work on robots themselves then society won’t suffer – it’ll grow and change for the better, just like it has with every major industrial flashpoint in history.

So maybe the robot revolution is coming. Who says we can’t be a part of that revolution?