How A Robot Will Steal Your Job

On a visit to Standard Motor Products' fuel-injector assembly line in South Carolina, Atlantic writer Adam Davidson asked why a worker there, Maddie, was welding caps onto the injectors herself. Why not use a machine? That's how a lot of the factory's other tasks were performed. Maddie's supervisor, Tony, had a bracing, direct answer: "Maddie is cheaper than a machine."

Davidson's complex, poignant story, Making It in America, revealed some chilling data about where American manufacturing is headed. It's a matter of simple maths. Maddie makes less in two years than a $US100,000 machine would cost, so her job is safe — for now.

Elsewhere in America, robots are getting cheaper and more sophisticated, and they're landing better, more advanced jobs. They are driving cars, writing newspaper articles, and filling prescriptions, displacing people with years of schooling and training under their belts. It sounds like a classic sci-fi story, but that disconcerting future isn't in the future. It's here today.

What are the odds your job — your career — will be the next one that can be done better by a machine? Alarmingly high.

***

If you're an average sports fan, you may have heard about Narrative Science. But if you're someone who writes about sports for a living, you've definitely heard of it — you probably already know it's coming after your career.

Part of a joint research project between Northwestern University's schools of engineering and journalism, Narrative Science was officially founded in 2010. It's now led by a small hodgepodge of computer scientists, journalists, and businesspeople whose goal is to use data to create stories via the company's artificial intelligence platform, Quill. Quill takes data fed into it — a football game's stats, for instance — and in seconds pumps out stories. They won't win any Pulitzers, but they're occasionally better than what humans produce.

The sports site Deadspin, last year, challenged Narrative Science to write a better baseball article than one they'd found in a local paper. In the story, the reporter buried the lead — that the pitcher had thrown a perfect game — near the bottom of the story. Narrative Science entered the box scores into Quill and, lo and behold, it came up with an article that announced the perfect game right up top.

Pablo S. Torre is a former staff writer for Sports Illustrated and a current senior writer at ESPN magazine and ESPN.com. He says that while longform feature and profile writers are probably years away from having to worry about a computer taking their jobs, thanks to the nuance required of them, wire service sports writers are not as lucky.

"My sense is that an increasing number of casual readers are skipping right to the box score," Torre told me over Gchat. "If they are reading a game recap, they're trying to identify the biggest or most interesting moments in a game as part of the general trend towards quick summary and bullet-point highlights. So if a robot can approximate that with any semblance of human intelligence, then that's something to be feared."

Torre believes that as society moves more toward a "just the facts, ma'am" terseness, it's going to be deadline-driven Associated Press reporters and the like who struggle to compete with programs that can put together a quick game recap based on just a batch of stats.

"It's not because the AP doesn't do a tremendous job-they do, and are continually underrated," says Torre. "But because what's often desired, post-game and in a pinch, isn't a well-constructed narrative."

***

Like journalists, pharmacists are another group of well-educated professionals whose jobs are now in jeopardy because of robotics. Last year, Slate journalist Farhad Manjoo, whose father is a pharmacist, looked at PillPick, a robot that's been installed to fill prescriptions at the University of California-San Francisco Medical Center. PillPick is huge and expensive, but the machine, made by a company called Swisslog, is also extraordinarily efficient and more precise than a human being. You might want that quality on a job doling out potentially toxic medications: Experts estimate that more than a million people are injured and 7000 killed due to so-called "medication errors" each year.

Here's PillPick in action:

Though the robot may look colder and uglier than your friendly neighbourhood pharmacist. But does that matter if it's great at what it does?

Before installing the robot, UCSF needed about half of its more than 100 on-staff pharmacists to administer and check the drugs going out to patients on the floor. Now, nearly all have been reassigned to different parts of the hospital, where they make IVs, help adjust patients' drug regimens, and perform other tasks that had been neglected when they were simply filling prescriptions. The robotic pharmacy cost $US7 million to install — less than one year's salary for all those pharmacists — and when it's running at full capacity, it can dispense more than 10,000 doses a day. After it became operational last year, the robot filled 350,000 prescriptions without making a single error. (The first error it did encounter was a printer problem, and that was quickly caught by its human operators.)

With society becoming more reliant on an ever-broadening range of drugs, the Bureau of Labor Statistics expects the need for pharmacists to grow by 25 per cent between now and 2020. And with their median annual wage sitting at more than $US111,000, human pharmacists are relatively expensive to employ. With this in mind, it's not surprising that more and more hospitals are choosing PillPick to replace their pharmaceutical staffs. Earlier this year, Benxi Central Hospital, one of the largest facilities in China, ordered a PillPick robot. Then, in July, Singapore's largest hospital group ordered five PillPicks.

The Singapore sales were a "tipping point," said Stephan Sonderegger, Swisslog's head of healthcare solutions in Asia, in a press release. In other words, in case the smart students studying pharmacology are thinking of transferring, perhaps it's time to consider the fantastic robotics program at MIT.

***

With robots now taking both high-skill and low-skill jobs, you'd have to be a fool to think that a robot could never come for your career. What's more, robots are becoming far more cost effective than they once were. It still costs millions to equip a pharmacy with PillPick, but a new robot from Boston-based company Rethink Robotics, Baxter, was just put on the market for $US22,000. That's about how much a human assembly line worker might earn annually. Except that Baxter will never ask for a bathroom break, health insurance, or vacation time.

"This robot is never going to build an iPhone," Rethink Robotics CEO Rodney Brooks told an audience at a robotics tradeshow in Pittsburgh this week. But Baxter can do things that require less dexterity, like picking parts up from a conveyor belt and putting them elsewhere, or sorting and packaging products for shipment. And with more than $US60 million in venture capital funding keeping Rethink Robotics afloat, it probably won't be long before Baxter's successors can, in fact, build iPhones.

It was just this week that Foxconn, the Chinese company that manufactures so many of America's favourite gadgets, initiated a plan to buy one million robots to replace human workers. When that day comes, thousands of men and women working at Apple's Chinese manufacturing plants will be unemployed. You'll have to wonder — in spite of notorious labour abuses at Foxconn — were those jobs better than none?

***

In Terminator, the robots rose up and slaughtered the world's humans. This Skynet scenario was scary, but a more plausible future is pretty frightening as well. The robots don't exterminate us directly — they just slowly push us out of work, impoverishing the world's labourers until we're slaughtering each other to stay alive.

Writing for io9 earlier this year, computer scientist and futurist Federico Pistono imagined the horror:

Without a backup plan to adjust to a new paradigm, we can expect the worst. Civil unrest, riots, police brutality, and general distress of the population will continue to rise until critical levels are reached, at which point the whole socioeconomic system will crumble upon itself. This has negative repercussions across the whole spectrum of the population, and it is against the interest of everyone on this planet, even of the richest and wealthiest people.

Illah Nourbakhsh, a professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon University, agrees with Pistano. Nourbakhsh, author of the forthcoming book Robot Futures, says that the "chronic underemployment" robots could create has to the potential to be "very, very bad". But he also told me it's not too late to turn around.

When people want to build a new factory, the government makes them do an environmental impact study to assess what impact the factory is going to have on the world around it. They look at what's going to happen to biodiversity and, if they give off toxic material, they figure out how they're going to remediate that. What's odd to me is that we have nothing like that for employment.

Nourbakhsh says that he'd like to see the introduction of "employment impact assessments". These would require companies transitioning to automated workers to calculate — and then try to mitigate — the damage they'd be doing to the human job market. "We need to have these kinds of controls," he says, "because the captains of industry will do whatever they need to make more money, and replacing humans with robots will always make them more money."

The responsibility to prevent a world overrun with mechanised labour isn't just on CEOs and industry titans. Nourbakhsh says consumers have to begin asking ourselves what we want out of society. Perfect service from robots? Or the gentler qualities only humans can offer?

"Google is creating robot drivers for cars, but the robotic limo driver won't have a really great recommendation about the best bagel spot in New York City," he says. "We lose those kinds of nuanced, fun things with robots. We have to start putting a real value on them, the way we put a real value on labour costs — because they matter."


Comments

    “Google is creating robot drivers for cars, but the robotic limo driver won’t have a really great recommendation about the best bagel spot in New York City,”

    Except when:
    1) Your car is driven by a Google robot
    2) The robot has a Google Voice component
    3) Finds the best bagel spot in NYC based on reviews.

    Just saying, that was a bad example. This is one of the easiest things to do here.

      Considering I can't remember the last taxi driver that actually knew his way around without either GPS or me guiding him, I think the taxi example is an incredibly bad one.

        I was just about to get out my trolling red marker when i saw that the author was quoting a professor at CMU

    I'm pretty sure that online reviews combined with something like Google Now or Siri would be able to recommend the best bagel sspot in New York.

    We're going to need better justifications than mere usefulness to justify human labour -- in theory, robots will eventually be able to do anything better than us.

    The only was to stop this is to tie emotion itself directly to a cash value: if you piss a lot of people off, you will pay a large new "Antisocial Tax" a la Carbon Tax. Infeasible? Use Twitter sentiment as a metric.

    I don't know why there's any pretext about caring. Companies in general have been seeking cheaper ways to do things forever. That's why most of manufacturing has gone to China, and the telemarketing/support to Asia.

    "... robotic limo driver won’t have a really great recommendation about the best bagel spot in New York City". A laughable comment given that a human limo driver may never have eaten a bagel in their whole life.

    The thing the author should've mentioned is that if people don't have jobs then they won't have the money to buy the things that robots make.

    If Skynet had Asimov's laws hard-wired, how awesome would the world be?? Imagine all the hard work being done by semi-sentient humaniod robots, empowering the human population to pursue their dream for knowledge, expression or some other personal progression. Or just being a lazy slob.

    Upon the development of agriculture and domestication of animals humanity removed a huge barrier to progression. I see global automation as the next big step in systematically controlling our environment, which can bring about the next true human revolution.

      You're speaking only for the Bourgeoisie. For those people who can afford in-house service staff and clearly have means to capital besides that of their labour. Investing in a robot to clean your house for you versus giving someone grocery money to someone to clean it for you.

        I totally understand that argument and I agree 100% - the world I speak of requires *full* automation of just about every possible task, and domestic duties are the least of what I'm talking about.
        I'm talking about automating agriculture, mining, manufacture, construction, distribution, waste collection, infrastructure (power, water, information, transport). No doubt transitioning to such a world cannot be instant, which is why we'd need Skynet to autonomously do it without our "permission". :D

    I was at my old school for some career mentoring thing a while ago. I told people not to pick a career that could one day be done by a robot. The steel manufacturing guys seemed slightly annoyed that I used them as an example.

    I think my job (database developer) is pretty safe from robots, because it requires a lot of interpretation. AI would have to advance considerably before robots could build databases.

      Aye, but not every database job is safe from automated processes.

      You can automate the creation of a db, some of the basic management, etc. Example: MS SharePoint -- All you need to is the DB dev at MS, and just one DBA at a reasonably large business to run all DB's.

      And that DBA is mainly there for irregular maintainence, upgrades, and performance tuning.

      You still need a whole team of maintenance people to keep the process going as well as quality to keep the grades up to scratch. Getting rid of numerous operators is possible, but somebody still needs to know how to run fixed plant in manual when the PLC get stuck in logic.

    Being a luddite never goes out of style it seems - whether its the demonic knitting mills taking our jerbs, or robots doing it.

    “because the captains of industry will do whatever they need to make more money, and replacing humans with robots will always make them more money.”

    Not when the consumers are all unemployed and unable to buy their products. Then they will be forced to either inject money back into the economy, or create more jobs.

    This issue will self correct as long as the robots don't control the money.

      That's interesting... "as long as the robots don't control the money."
      Wondering what would happen then...

    There should be rule against replacing humans with robots for no reason besides cost cutting.
    I can see the benefit in robot surgeons or even drivers (human error is always the cause for road fatalities) Don't planes usually crash at take-off/landing? the time when they need to piloted manually?
    With no workers, who will be able to afford buy all the products manufactured by robots?

      Who will be able to afford food grown using the assistance of machinery? There should be a rule against replacing human farm labourers with machinery for no reason beside cost cutting. Let's go back to planting by hand, and harvesting by hand. There will be more jobs that way.

    That is a truly idiotic thing to say. To try and legislate against a cost cutting measure?
    To say, 'no you have to employ lots of people at minimum wage even if your business sinks and everyone loses their job' is just Ludicrous
    You are aware that people have been getting replaced by machines since the Creation of the machine-
    and no- almost all plane crashes are human error (not always pilot, more often maintenance)
    And you imply that robot workers will mean nobody can afford anything-
    We have had robot workers for a long time; and do you know what caused the GFC?
    Not robot workers; stupidity.
    Which humans will always have a monopoly on.

    Thanks for posting this article, it's an important issue and something that needs to be brought to light and discussed now rather than later. People need to get past the thought that this kind of situation is that of science fiction. It's a very real possibility. I think a large portion of the population just assume that when machines/robot really start taking over our jobs then we will all sit back, relax and live a life of leisure while they do all the work. A nice dream, but how will we all pay for this life when we no longer have a source of money coming in? who is going to pay your mortgage, or the rent, the groceries, clothes, entertainment etc.? the government?

    Robots also can go on the Net and read some good articles from legitimate journalists, then rephrase them a bit and post it here :)

    These robots will still need humans to repair and maintain them as well as make sure they are doing what us humans have instructed them to do.

    >> Though the robot may look colder and uglier than your friendly neighbourhood pharmacist. But does that matter if it’s great at what it does?
    Yes, it does matter. A patient will not volunteer information to ugly cold machine. A human is likely to avoid buying medicines from a robot. A human is likely to say: I don't want to see it, I don't want to buy from it, I will ignore my coughs instead of buying some cough syrup.
    Though, there is difference between robot who looks like a human and takes his place, and a machine for self-service checkout - a human will feel less discomfort in the latter case because computers are already widespread, and human still fully controls the machine, while robot can potentially make decisions for human, taking control from him.
    A robot will never make a great movie. Sure, it can film the events, make a documentary, but it will not be inspirational. The greatest discoveries are based on accidents, even in science: take antibiotics, for instance, penicillin in particular - Alexander Fleming discovered it by accident.
    >> Nourbakhsh says that he’d like to see the introduction of “employment impact assessments”.
    No, no and no. Unskilled labour should not be preserved as vacancies for humans. New jobs should be created, to design revolutionary concepts, to do something robots cannot do, by definition. Such as, mapping the world. Archaeologists, geologists, biologists, there are too many white spots in the world. There is nothing extraordinary left, such as a southern pole or a northern one, the highest mountain and the deepest ocean floor were already visited; but there are still a lot of spots unseen, many places where humans had not walked.
    >> Perfect service from robots? Or the gentler qualities only humans can offer?
    When the work is mechanical, I prefer not to burden a human with it, and therefore, I choose robot - as long as I am sure that it will not make decisions for me behind my back. When I need human expertise, I expect to find a human with a passion for the topic to be working here and finding pleasure in this work.
    Best regards.

    Now you know why the unabomber killed experts in the fields of automation and artificial intelligence.

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