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Will a Robot Take My Job?

By Robert Hadley

United Parcel Service has 155 miles of conveyor belts at its Worldport hub in Louisville.

If you believe the hype, a robot might one day steal your job. That’s according to some of the mythology perpetuated by futurists about the coming automation boom.

For example, in October 2015 “60 Minutes” ran a piece on a driverless Mercedes that responded to eye movements and gestures. If you carry this technology to its logical conclusion, could we one day have driverless freight trucks that in one fell swoop eliminate the need for a job that today employs 1.8 million workers?

Theoretically yes, according to experts, but there is more to the equation than meets the eye.

Chris Bollinger, director of UK’s Center for Business and Economic Research, is quick to remind us that automation is nothing new.

“If you look at manufacturing employment as a percentage of total employment, it’s been declining since 1954,” he explained. “It’s not something that’s going to happen – it’s been happening and is going to continue to happen.”

Although it may be an ongoing trend, there also is a perception that more of it is coming in the next 10 to 20 years, and the impact of this acceleration is uncertain.

In a Lane Report interview earlier this year, Brian Papke, chairman of Florence, Ky.-based advanced machine tool maker Mazak Corp., said automation and internet-connected machinery are rapidly transforming industry, especially manufacturing. He is sure the U.S. employment impact will be positive, both in skilled manufacturing positions to set up, oversee and manage advanced robotic devices and the three to 10 ancillary jobs each manufacturing job generates.

Lesser skilled areas, however, might fare more poorly.

Already, politicians and pundits warn of the threat of replacing minimum-wage, fast-food workers with self-service kiosks, rendering the national debate about wage increases a moot point. In June, The Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch reported Wendy’s restaurant chain has announced a rollout of kiosks by year-end to its 6,000 U.S. stores.

The announcement came not long after New York and California announced minimum-wage increases to $15 an hour by 2022.

The use of this technology could be blamed on rising wages. Todd Penegor, chief financial officer at Wendy’s, said the chain’s payroll cost is up 5 to 6 percent, blaming the increase on minimum-wage hikes and competition for workers.

The restaurant industry is not alone in using kiosks to automate tasks once reserved for human workers. We are all familiar with units in retail stores that check your weight and blood pressure, some also giving users an eye exam. Exactly how far this trend will go is uncertain.

Kevin Kirby, dean of Northern Kentucky University’s College of Informatics, acknowledges the difficulty of predicting future technological advancements.

“I don’t know if we are going to see kiosks where people get their blood drawn and lab work while they wait,” he said. “I certainly think healthcare is going to continue to evolve and make more and more use of technology.”

As an example of automation’s impact on healthcare, consider a microchipped pill researchers at the University of Florida devised in 2010 that can alert doctors when it is swallowed. This could make a life-and-death difference, according to the American Heart Association, which blames noncompliance with doctors’ medication orders for 125,000 deaths annually.

This is among many examples that challenge the persistent perception of robots being anthropomorphic devices with arms and legs reminiscent of 1950s science fiction films. While such automatons are certainly in use at car factories and elsewhere, automation has evolved beyond performing repetitive tasks with precision, instead gathering data for someone – doctors, managers – to interpret.

Such strategic use of technology can actually benefit workers, rather than seizing their jobs, or they may create a job where none existed before. So it is with the SWAT-Bot, a rover robot used by the Newport (Ky.) Police Department for surveillance in risky or cramped conditions.

This is one instance where automation can keep an officer safe, said developer Steve Hinkel, an engineer with Duke Energy who also teaches a course in robotics in NKU’s informatics program. Hinkel said his goal is to use student help and state grants to build up to one robot each semester.

As far as Duke Energy is concerned, he said the company is interested in expanding the use of automation at its power plants to boost worker safety. One example is a traffic control rover that would replace a human flagger when a lane of highway must be shut down for maintenance.

“From there, things get interesting,” Hinkel said, “because a robot can do things no human can do. For example, the rover is also outfitted with a traffic signal, to provide (oncoming) drivers with additional information. The potential is literally unlimited.”

Hinkel assured that the idea was not to eliminate the human flagger altogether but to locate its remote operator out of harm’s way. Other plans for the traffic rover include equipping the robot with speed-sensing capabilities to warn workers if an oncoming car is speeding and may crash into the work crew, Hinkel said.

The automation in place at United Parcel Service Inc.’s $2.4 billion Worldport air hub, adjacent to Louisville International Airport, seems to be an application where automation has both eliminated and created jobs. Employing more than 9,000 workers, this 155-mile maze of conveyor belts spread out over 5.2 million s.f. uses a sophisticated network of intelligent sensors to route up to 416,000 packages per hour.

Company spokesman Jim Mayer demonstrated how the smart conveyor belts used throughout the hub can avoid collisions when packages from different areas attempt to navigate through the same pathway. They simply stop — thanks to an electric eye — to await their turns.

“Most of the packages only need to be touched twice by human hands while they’re here,” Mayer said.

Despite all the automation, an army of workers is still required to group packages with similar destinations into bags that then are placed on still other conveyor belts before they are loaded onto one of the company’s 237 jet aircraft or its fleet of 5,600 familiar brown delivery trucks.

Those vehicles still need maintenance mechanics, and so does the machinery in the hub itself, Mayer stressed, making the idea of automation being an automatic job killer less of a realistic threat.

Ironically, the spread of automation in business may ultimately create more jobs than it eliminates, and those new jobs may be higher skilled and higher paying, Bollinger said.

If driverless trucks were to become available, he argued, it could replace a moderately skilled job (the driver) with higher-skilled ones, such as a dispatcher and route programmers.

“Those are going to boom,” he said. “Those will be jobs working with computers, requiring an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. Suddenly you’re going to need to hire people who can do those things.”

Robert Hadley is a correspondent for The Lane Report. He can be reached at [email protected].