Robots and work – what you need to know

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The intersection of robots and work is becoming a major factor in the workplace and society, and many are predicting that robots will rapidly replace millions of jobs over the coming decade to the point that work and opportunity will be lost for many with no hope of retraining. Some headlines and predictions are alarming, while others reassure us that yes there will be some changes and augmentation of work, but that new jobs will also be created that will allow human and robot workers to co-exist quite happily together.

With students and schools in mind we’re looking to take a balanced view of what’s happening in the world of robots and work, referencing some sound research and looking at examples of how robots are affecting firms and workers. We’re also going to take a look at recent technical achievements, along with issues that are starting to appear and are evolving.

According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), these industries are ready to be taken over by robots. The article is based on research from McKinsey & Company which analysed work tasks across industries and then theorised which could be automated using existing technologies. There are no real surprises, with food services, agriculture, manufacturing and transport services topping the list, with educational services at the bottom. It’s useful information to have, and an important resource when having conversations with students.

Chinese researchers have looked closely at the potential impact of robots on jobs, and concluded that while there will be changes to work, there will not be ‘significant’ destruction of jobs. The research suggests that low-skilled workers will be transferred to other roles, and that the most changes will happen in – you guessed it – food services, agriculture, manufacturing and transport. A PwC report estimates that 26% of Chinese jobs could be displaced over the coming two decades, but an additional 38% of jobs could be created. The research appears to be consistent, and work trends are becoming clearer.

One important factor that drives automation of work tasks is robot density in industries. The United States has twice as many robots per 10,000 employees as China does, with the biggest recent growth in use of robots being in the food and beverage industry. Electronics and manufacturing have also seen significant investment, and with 8 years of record growth in robot deployment this is another key piece of information that supports research and trends seen in other areas.

So how does the deployment of these industrial robots affect companies and the people who work in them? The answer is, it depends. As with any issue involving infinite interactions between human beings within the global economy, it’s complex, but what has been noticed is that firms that commit to robot adoption tend to generate 50% more jobs in the long term compared to firms that do not. From the article: “robot adopters expand their scale of operations and create jobs, while non-adopters experience negative output and employment effects in the face of tougher competition with high-technology firms.”

It appears as though that at least for the moment, robot deployment is a net job creator, and essential for survival in certain industries.

So what’s happening with robotic technology itself, what advances are being made and what are some examples of deployment? Anyone who’s taken a look at the Boston Dynamics Atlas Robot recently knows the moves it’s now capable of, and it appears that the age of adept and not clumsy robot movement may finally be with us. Traditionally, robots were controlled through pre-programming, but because of dynamic physical environments robots encountered new terrain, scenarios and surfaces that they couldn’t adapt to. Now, robots are controlled through control theory and machine learning, learning and adapting to their environments, resulting in more fluid and intelligent movement.

An excellent example of this is a robotic surgical device that autonomously navigates through beating hearts. The design team trained an algorithm using thousands of images of the heart, and the algorithm then directed the robot to where it needed to go, while it was still beating.

A second example is a humanoid robot from Japan named CUE3 that can make 3-point basketball shots. Again trained by an AI, the robot automatically detects distance, and the many subtle judgements and movements required to place the ball correctly. As you’ll see from the video, the design team has had to overcome many technical challenges, and it’s just broken the robot free-throw world record.

A robot baseball umpire has called its first game recently. The technology, developed by sports data firm TrackMan, is being trialled in the minor league, and appears to be working well so far. Major League Baseball has signed on to experiment as well, and it may not be long before we see robot umpires as a permanent fixture at games.

Robots are also successfully taking on the #BottleCapChallenge. In this example a robot from MIT named Baxter watches a human performing the challenge and then successfully repeats it. As with CUE3, despite this being a relatively simple task for humans the technical challenges are many when it comes to subtle, complex movements that are constantly changing. Another step towards adept movement.

To Japan again, where researchers have developed a robotic tail for humans. The tail is designed to help a person maintain balance when moving or carrying a heavy object, and may one day help people who need assistance to move or balance.

Robots are being developed that may take care of us in our old age, but the myriad of challenges that they’ll face means that the robots will need to learn and adapt, just like any carer. The solution? Playing and learning the same way that children do, storing learning and sharing information with other robots so that they can then learn as well. The robot would need to learn to coordinate its ‘body’, and then test possibilities in the world around it, just like humans do. This technology is coming, and we can expect to see robotic learning along with robots and work as a major area of research over the coming decade.

We may not even need to wait long for carer robots to become commonplace. This robot nurse named Moxi is proving to be very popular in hospitals, helping nurses perform mundane and time-consuming tasks such as delivering materials and lab tests around different hospital departments. Moxi is not designed to be a nurse, but to support nurses, but due to its design it is proving to be incredibly popular with patients, and Moxi’s nursing colleagues have quickly started addressing it during their rounds.

And yet challenges remain of course. Walmart’s cleaning robots might not be doing a great job, and yet these early adopters understand that they will face potential challenges deploying robots. They are prepared, and will improve. What’s becoming really interesting is how human beings are interacting with robots, whether they are useful or not. If a robot has been designed in a non-threatening or human-like way and performs its tasks well, people tend to interact with it as if it is conscious and deserving of respect. If it looks like a machine and is clumsy, the robot is not respected as much.

This has given rise to the ethical rights of robots in the workplace. Comments in videos where Boston Dynamics engineers are testing robots often point to ‘bullying’ or ‘abuse’ (see video title), and these new interactions between robots and humans are leading to a whole series of ethical questions that are only now being asked.

There appear to be some key trends emerging in the reading that we’ve done around robotics recently:

1. Food services, agriculture, manufacturing and transport are likely to see further deployment of robots and higher job disruption.

2. In certain industries, it’s difficult for companies to create jobs and remain in business if they don’t deploy robots like their competitors do.

3. Investment in robotics is huge.

4. Movement is becoming more fluid, and robots are learning through machine intelligence.

5. Robots are becoming more common and visible in our everyday lives, and ethical concerns are rising.

So will robots take our jobs? Some, yes. Are robots getting better at performing tasks traditionally done by humans? Yes. Will the technology continue to improve? Yes. Do we really know what’s going to happen? No.

The research conducted and insights gained during the writing of this article have inspired the Indigo Schools Framework, the details of which can found in the Primer on our Resources Page. Send us an email at or complete the form below if you’d like to learn more about how the Indigo Schools Framework can be successfully applied within your school. Also be sure to follow us on Facebook and Linkedin for our latest updates.

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