This week, I’m going to continue my year-end tradition of looking back at the tweets I’ve issued on Twitter in order to follow up on some and comment on the significance of others. (If you’re not already following me, my handle is @LaurenceShatkin.) But this week, I’m going to focus on a single trend that I’ve tweeted about numerous times: the growing use of robots.
In fact, if it were up to me to choose Time’s Person of the Year, I’d choose the robot. For example, this year I learned about a new trend in warehouses: using robots to pull merchandise off the shelves and bring it to the loading dock. Human forklift operators need not apply for these jobs. Robots are also threatening some jobs in the green career field of solar panel installation. Part of the reason this trend is accelerating is that technology is creating a generation of robots that are more deft and therefore more capable of doing work that until now has been done by hand. (“Fine motor control” takes on a different meaning when it refers to actual motors.) For example, a Philips Electronics factory in Holland is using robots to do the same delicate work—assembling electric shavers—that humans are doing in a Philips factory located in the Chinese city of Zhuhai. One of the biggest manufacturers in China, Foxconn (which assembles iPhones, among many other products), has announced plans to add up to one million industrial robots to its assembly lines inside of three years.
But despite these improvements, robots still can’t think as well as human workers do, and it seems unlikely that they will soon be able to make complex decisions or recognize nonroutine visual patterns as well as the human brain can. Job erosion in the United States has been slowed partly by this limitation on robots, combined with a limitation on foreign workers: much work in America needs to be done by on-site workers. But perhaps a perfect storm is coming that will overcome both of these obstacles: what one writer calls “the Avatar economy.”
If you’ve seen that movie, you saw how one of the characters remotely controlled a physical body, his avatar, to accomplish work that his disabled body could not do. In a way, we already have workers doing this when they control aerial drones for surveillance and for making kill shots in foreign countries. Why can’t that be done in reverse—by foreign workers—for civilian work tasks here? For example, some delicate surgery is now performed by robotic hands under the control of a physician who watches the progress of the operation through stereoscopic video cameras. I’ve seen this being done from across a room. Couldn’t this be done from across an ocean? In surgery, the major remaining barrier may be the few seconds of delay in response time, which could be critical in some situations. But for less life-and-death work tasks, it may become less expensive to hire a foreign worker to control an on-site robot.
It’s important to understand that not all robots are engaged in physical manipulation of objects. Robots are also making inroads into some American jobs that are concerned mainly with manipulating data. For example, “e-discovery” software is replacing lawyers and legal assistants by rapidly reading through reams of documents to find material that is relevant to a lawsuit or other trial. One California firm analyzed 1.5 million documents for the bargain-basement cost of less than $100,000. The software is sophisticated enough to go beyond keyword recognition and actually identify key concepts. You saw something similar happening if you watched the computer that bested the human opponent on “Jeopardy!” Less clever computers are working with numbers to make decisions that used to require human loan officers and tax accountants.
Machine translation has reached the point where you can easily ask Facebook to translate a posting made in a foreign language. One indication of where this is going was a demonstration this year by Microsoft researchers in which a computer translated someone’s spoken English into Mandarin with only a very short delay and, most remarkable of all, spoke the translation in a voice that sounded like that of the original speaker.
Fears about the Mayan apocalypse now seem rather quaint, and I’m not going to predict an imminent robotic apocalypse for American workers. But if you’re planning for a career with any longevity, you need to think about developing skills that robots will find difficult to master.