Picture this: A sentient robot so advanced that its artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities dwarf mankind’s intellect and displace human workers. That might sound like science fiction, but it’s happening today.
Advances in robotics and artificial intelligence have already started replacing human workers in old economy sectors like industrial and manufacturing. And now they’re displacing new economy and so-called information and knowledge workers.
The ascendance of sentient computers and robots is a famous plot device in sci-fi classics like 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Terminator. But that doesn’t reflect our reality so far. Today’s technically advanced AI-enabled bots are not evil machines bent on dominating and/or annihilating their human creators. However, robots are quickly becoming a bigger threat to American workers than traditional corporate outsourcing ever was.
For decades, robots have delivered cost savings and greater efficiencies by performing manual tasks like automotive assembly or maintenance tasks. Drones — whether used for surveillance or lethal action — are considered “pre-sentient” robots. But advanced artificial intelligence has created a paradigm shift in the world of robotics. An Oxford University study last year predicted that a whopping 47% of all U.S. jobs could be automated in 20 years.
Still not convinced? Check out this chilling YouTube clip from British explanatory video company C.G.P. Grey — appropriately titled “Humans Need Not Apply.” Driverless cars are only one example of how intelligent robots can make driving safer by eliminating the human element. The company also believes advanced robots can minimize or even replace doctors, legal researchers and even (gasp!) writers.
How grim could that future be? Here are four areas where job-killing robots could thin the human herd:
Robots are invading the world of food service and preparation in multiple ways. Consider Momentum Machines’ hamburger flipping robot, which slices vegetables, offers a choice of meat grinds and gourmet cooking ingredients and techniques at fast-food prices. In China, one new restaurant has deployed more than a dozen robots as greeters, wait staff and cooks.
Restaurant chains like Chili’s parent Brinker International (EAT) and Dine Equity’s (DIN) Applebee’s have cut out people by placing tablets on tables; Panera Bread (PNRA) spent $42 million to bring self-service kiosks to its restaurants and replace some cashiers.
Transportation and Logistics
Driverless vehicles are more than simply a technological convenience for individual drivers — they could revolutionize several industries like trucking. There are more than 3 million truck drivers in the U.S. — and the industry is working overtime to overcome a shortage of drivers.
This is a logical investment for trucking companies, which have struggled to hire and retain drivers in the aftermath of the Great Recession. But once the technology has been implemented successfully, count on a large number of those jobs to vanish for good.
If you think a group of professionals as highly skilled and trained as doctors could be immune from replacement by robots, think again. At Mercy St. Vincent Hospital in Toledo, Ohio, a so-called remote presence robot is acting as a physician assistant. The robot, called Vinnie by the staff, is remotely operated by a doctor and comes equipped with various medical instruments and a large screen displaying the face of the human physician.
Meanwhile, health giant Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) is launching a robot anesthesiologist called Sedasys that it says will eliminate the need (and the associated cost) of sedating adults for simple procedures like colonoscopies.
Several news organizations, including the Associated Press and Los Angeles Times, are using automation to produce business and breaking news stories. Although the news organizations say the move will not lead to job cuts, the media business has long been under pressure to cut costs — and head count is a huge cost center.
Lest broadcast talent think their positions secure, news anchor robots recently were (successfully) tested in Japan.
While sophisticated robots are not likely to turn evil and destroy humanity, they could have a profound affect on workers and jobs. Pew Research’s 2014 Future of the Internet survey asked nearly 1,900 experts about the impact of robots on our daily lives between now and 2025. Most experts said robotics and artificial intelligence will permeate wide segments of daily life by 2025 — industries such as healthcare, transportation and logistics, customer service and home maintenance could change substantially.
Most importantly, 48% of the experts believe robots and digital agents will displace large numbers of both blue-collar and white-collar workers potentially leaving millions of people “effectively unemployable,” leading to “breakdowns in the social order.”
To be fair, the other 52% of respondents said technology will create more jobs than it destroys over the next 11 years, but human workers — particularly middle-class workers who have already learned new skills to succeed in the New Economy — need to start planning now to move into that new career.
As of this writing, Susan J. Aluise did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.