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Will robots put humans out of work?

10 Oct 2014  | Ann Thryft

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Robots are becoming more sophisticated and lifelike, and this could lead to a predicament in the employment sector.

Many experts think robots will only do dull, dirty and dangerous physical tasks, while humans will remain necessary for jobs that require thinking, like programming, decision-making and management. But others recognise that combining robotics with artificial intelligence (AI) could lead to the replacement of even highly paid humans, such as knowledge workers.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk's concern about AI goes way beyond the industrial sector. In an interview published on Vanity Fair, Musk made no secret of his worries that super-intelligent machines might decide in the future that getting rid of humans will end email spam.

"I don't think anyone realises how quickly artificial intelligence is advancing. Particularly if [the machine is] involved in recursive self-improvement... and its utility function is something that's detrimental to humanity, then it will have a very bad effect," said Musk. "If its [function] is just something like getting rid of email spam and it determines the best way of getting rid of spam is getting rid of humans... "

The crowd laughed off Musk's concerns, but the billionaire could be on to something.

Robots in industrial age

THOR

The humanoid-looking, partly autonomous THOR is tasked to replace humans in responding to an emergency, such as driving a vehicle through debris or finding and rescuing earthquake survivors. (Source: Virginia Polytechnical Institute and State University)

We reported in the past that robotics has already entered the industrial age. Robots are no longer exclusively used for automotive and semiconductor manufacturing. Because of technology and AI, robots have entered new production segments, making them indispensable in many manufacturing applications. (In related news, Robotics enters industrial age).

Research on AI is rapidly finding ways to increase the autonomy of robots, giving them the power of decision-making and emotional capabilities. Both robotics and AI research and applications are advancing at such a fast pace that it is only a matter of time before well-trained robots are ready to assist humans in areas like healthcare.

The job market

Some recent, in-depth studies examined where and under what circumstances robots add jobs to an industry, or take them away.

Two Oxford professors in engineering science and economics published a broader study on the issue. According to the study, titled "The Future of Employment," more advanced robots are gaining enhanced sensors and manipulators, which enable them to take on non-routine manual tasks. For instance, General Electric's robots can climb and maintain wind turbines. Hospitals have also started to employ autonomous robots to transport food, prescriptions and samples.

Costs are also declining due to technological advances. According to the study, industrial robots equipped with machine vision and high-precision dexterity typically cost $100,000 to $150,000. But in the next 10 years, robots with higher level of intelligence and additional capabilities will be available for $50,000 to $75,000.

This decline could put robots within the reach of more users. In China, for example, employers receive incentives when they substitute robots for human labour. This means that we could be seeing a shrinking human workforce in the future.

But for the International Federation of Robotics, a non-profit industry group based in Germany, robotics is creating jobs. In fact, IRF said up to 80,000 jobs in the electronics sector between 2008 and 2011 were created by robotics alone.


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