Where I mix career information and career decision making in a test tube and see what happens

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Will a Drone and a Robot Take Your Job?

In the past, when talking about the use of robots to replace human workers, I have often given the example of ground transportation at the airport. To get from Terminal A to Terminal B at many airports, you take a robot-controlled trolley. No human judgments are needed to navigate the rails, make the stops, and open and close the doors. However, to get from the airport to your hotel, you take a shuttle driven by a human, because a robot cannot make the many judgments that are required to navigate through traffic out on the streets.

This example used to be a way I would indicate that some types of jobs may never be replaced by robots. But recently I am using this example to illustrate how robots may soon be extending their reach. Google has been experimenting with robot-driven cars for several years and has already logged hundreds of thousands of accident-free miles. The self-driven cars use GPS to understand their route and can consult a database of information to learn about speed limits and other considerations that we human drivers learn from signage. They avoid accidents with other cars or careless pedestrians by means of the same radar technology that is now being offered as an accessory in human-driven cars. Google’s technology is still experimental, but in a few years we may see it being used in airport shuttles, probably beginning with trips that involve the fewest variables, such as to and from the airport’s rent-a-car lot. I suppose the robot shuttle vans will also need to provide some mechanism that lifts heavy suitcases in and out of rear storage. And you won’t need to tip the robots.

When will these robot drivers take over? First, jurisdictions will need to change traffic laws that do not presently allow driverless vehicles on the roads, and you can expect some pushback from the Teamsters Union and other representatives of the people who earn their living by driving. Secondly, the cost of the technology will need to come down to the point where companies that deploy fleets of cars and trucks will save money by switching to robots. Besides saving on wages and benefits, fleet owners may realize savings if robot drivers prove to be safer than human drivers, as preliminary data indicates. It may take many years before all of these stars align, so human drivers can probably expect at least a decade’s reprieve.

The outlook changes, however, when you look at occupations with a shortage of human workers. There are lots of people who are qualified to drive airport vans. As far as I can tell, most states do not require a special license for the drivers, although employers look for a clean driving record. A modest level of fitness is necessary to handle passengers’ luggage, and the driver must speak English well enough to understand passengers’ destinations. But millions of Americans have these qualifications, so it is not hard to find workers to fill these jobs.

Long-distance truck driving requires a higher level of skill, and there currently is a shortage of qualified drivers. However, the higher skill requirements, which are reflected in the special licensure needed for this work, also mean that robots will probably take longer to make inroads into this occupation.

Japan furnishes a fine example of how a shortage of human workers can accelerate the adoption of robots. You may have already read about how Japan is using robots to perform certain routine health-care tasks, such as moving a patient from a bed to a wheelchair. Japan’s aging population means there is a growing number of elderly patients and a diminishing number of health-care workers with the physical strength needed to do the work. This provides the opening for robots.

Japan also has a shortage of workers who can drive heavy construction vehicles, probably also largely because of the physical demands of the work. The Komatsu company is planning to fill this employment gap by using self-driven bulldozers and excavators. Unlike long-haul trucks or even airport shuttles, construction vehicles function in a closed location and don’t have to deal with traffic or random pedestrians.

One thing that is particularly intriguing about Komatsu’s plan is that it also involves another new technology: drones. At a construction site, drones made by the San Francisco company Skycatch will survey the terrain from above, and the mapping data the drones gather on the actual lay of the land will be compared to a computerized map of how the site is meant to be shaped. The self-driving construction vehicles will then move earth as needed to achieve the desired result; their work will be periodically monitored by the drones.

Note that this arrangement displaces not only heavy-vehicle operators, but also surveyors. The Komatsu manager overseeing this project notes that the old way of surveying a site typically required a week’s work by two people, whereas the drones can acquire the data in only an hour or two.

Understand that this kind of construction will require some highly skilled human operators to program the machines, monitor their progress, and sometimes jump in to take control of a machine as needed. So consider this an example of how yet one more industry, construction, is seeing a trend toward eliminating many low-skill jobs and creating a smaller number of high-skill jobs. I have often said that construction jobs can’t be offshored, but the other trend eroding jobs—automation—is about to take its toll.

UPDATE.: Drones strike again: An Israeli company is marketing a self-piloted drone that reads water meters remotely. Also, a Dutch student has prototyped a drone that delivers a defibrillator to a heart-attack victim much faster than an ambulance could. Such drones presumably could also deliver other medical supplies needed in an emergency, plus a webcam to allow on-the-spot diagnosis that would enable helpful bystanders to be coached and thus provide better-informed first aid. Such drones certainly would not replace the need for EMTs, but they might mean that fewer EMTs would be needed to cover a geographic area because proximity would no longer be quite as important.

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