The robots are coming, and they want our jobs. That's progress. In the 20th century, they wanted our women.
Actually, the robots don't want all of our jobs. They're said to be capable of competing for about 47% of them, at least in the US, given current technological expectations. So only half of us will need to retrain. The other option is to join the Resistance. Who knew The Terminator was an employment double entendre?
The other half of us should get used to being lonely on the job, which may evolve into making sure our mechanized colleagues don't malfunction or do something unexpected. Small consolation though it may be, if you're the last human on the factory floor, you won't need to worry about turning out the lights when you leave. That's the sort of task robots do very well.
Google's acquisition of seven robotics and technology companies in the past six months and its decision to give its nascent robotics business to former Android chief Andy Rubin suggests a serious commitment to automation. This isn't a Google Wave-style expeditionary mission. It's a beachhead that will allow the company to expand beyond the ocean of ones and zeroes and into the territory of manufacturing, logistics, and commerce.
Automation has been a reality in manufacturing for years. But now that we're getting to the point of changing state laws to allow driverless vehicles, it's clear the robot revolution won't remain confined to factories.
Google's competitors are advancing the state of the art. Last year, Amazon bought Kiva Systems, the maker of the robots it uses to carry goods in its warehouses, for $775 million.
In fact, robots are already here among us. You just don't see them because they're hard to recognize, or they operate outside the public view.
According to the International Federation of Robotics, industrial robot shipments in the US increased 9% from 2011 to a record 22,414 units in 2012. From 2014 to 2016, global robot installations are expected to increase an average of 6% per year. At the end of 2012, there were 1.2 million to 1.5 million operational industrial robots in the world.
Losing a job to a machine may be a tragedy on a personal level, but it could be quite desirable on a macroeconomic scale. An Information Technology and Innovation Foundation paper published in September argues that fear of robots amounts to neo-Luddism, and that we should deploy more robots to increase productivity, which will improve the economy.
Though the paper veers from supported argument to dubious speculation in places (as when it states, "There is no upward limit to our desire to consume"), it may be that things will work out in the end between humans and robots -- at least in terms of our relationship with deferential, unarmed machines. But it's worth wondering whether the ITIF will change its tune when robots become capable of filling executive and managerial roles.
Click the image above to explore a few jobs that robots are already doing or have demonstrated the ability to do. Be afraid or welcome our new robot overlords, as you prefer.