Britt Miller

Britt Miller

  • Wonolo

We are at the dawn of the age of robots. Everyday, headlines seem to scream at us that the robot apocalypse is upon us, and that these machines will replace human jobs by the millions. But as with any technological advance, the story is more complicated than simple displacement.

Even as Amazon submits a patent for a drone delivery tower and Walmart submits one for a drone-deploying blimp, both of which would eliminate the need for traditional warehouses, it’s hiring more full-time workers than ever before. The latest estimate places the company’s robot fleet at around 45,000, a 50% increase from the previous year. Yet the expansion of its human workforce has also seen a 50% increase to sit at 340,000 total employees at the end of 2016.

Source: Quartz

The common logic is that with increased automation, there would be less of a need for human workers. Amazon’s behavior doesn’t quite comply with that prediction, due to several different factors.

More Automation Means More Supply and Demand

When you look back at history, automation has ironically brought more work for humans because of an increased demand for services or goods. Enabled by the technology, companies were able to produce goods faster and cheaper, increasing consumer demand and creating the need for more supply to meet those demands.

During the Industrial Revolution, the number of employed cloth weavers grew explosively thanks to the machines:

“In America during the 19th century the amount of coarse cloth a single weaver could produce in an hour increased by a factor of 50, and the amount of labour required per yard of cloth fell by 98%. This made cloth cheaper and increased demand for it, which in turn created more jobs for weavers: their numbers quadrupled between 1830 and 1900.” Source: The Economist

The nature of their jobs shifted, from time spent on actual weaving to operating machinery. This change in the job description is mirrored in another example from the legal industry, where the invention of computers seemed to threaten their livelihood at first.

But, perhaps surprisingly, electronic discovery software has not thrown paralegals and lawyers into unemployment lines. In fact, employment for paralegals and lawyers has grown robustly. While electronic discovery software has become a billion-dollar business since the late 1990s, jobs for paralegals and legal-support workers actually grew faster than the labor force as a whole, adding over 50,000 jobs since 2000, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. The number of lawyers increased by a quarter of a million.” Source: The Atlantic

Past patterns suggest that when routine tasks become automated, two fundamental changes accompany the technological development:

  1. a) More humans need to be hired in order to counter the increased demand;
  2. b) The nature of the workers’ tasks shifts to focus on something the machines can’t yet do.

In reality, this is already happening at Amazon. When it first announced its ambitious fulfillment center in Houston, it expected to hire 1,000 workers alongside robots. Now, they expect to hire 2,500. Because the robots can get inventory from the aisles at a rapid pace, more workers are needed to keep up with their speed.

Additionally, spokesperson Ashley Robinson anticipates more demand on the customer side as well: “Customer demand is expected to increase … We need to hire more folks to make sure we can keep up.”

As Amazon continues to expand its robot-equipped warehouses, there will be an increased demand for workers who will be spared the heavy lifting, but expected to spend that saved time packing and shipping instead.

Simple Tasks for Robots, Complex Tasks for Humans

While there’s no doubt that robots are actively replacing humans in the simplest and dullest warehouse tasks like heavy lifting, there’s still a way to go before they can perform “complicated” tasks that are still very easy for humans, like picking out items in plastic.

At Amazon’s annual “picking challenge,” various robots competed for high accuracy and speed in selecting the correct items from boxes. The winner of this competition had an inaccuracy rate of 17% out of 100 items picked in an hour. Though impressive, the failure rate is still too high to meet customer expectations.

The technology will inevitably get better, and robots will be able to perform more complex tasks like this shortly. However, as long as there are more complex tasks that only humans can perform, the robots won’t be able to replace people. Rather, we may see workers spending more time on other less routine tasks.

The 2016 DHL trend report on robotics concludes with the remark that far from replacing workers, advanced robotics will be able to alleviate the problem of labor shortage in warehouses while allowing workers to shift their focus to more complex, rewarding work:

“Finding enough labor for the logistics industry could become extremely difficult or even impossible. In answer to this, managers are learning the advantages of supplementing workers with collaborative robots, effectively allowing people to do more complex and rewarding tasks while at the same time improving overall productivity.”

Will Robots Bring Higher Quality Jobs?

It’s unclear what types of jobs will be added in the future because of developing technology, but when you examine past examples, the arrow points towards safer, more rewarding jobs.

The working conditions of factory workers in the Industrial Revolution were absolutely appalling by today’s standards, but perhaps future generations would also look back at today’s dangers in warehouses and shake their heads.

“Tractors liberated farm workers from dreadful exposure to more productive factory work aided by tools. Automation of the factory work put people behind desks to exercise their minds and build even more advanced tools; namely, computers and robots. AI and deep learning will ease the onerous work around engineering and give humans more time to exercise their creativity.” Source: TechCrunch

From increased delivery drones requiring more workers to oversee their routes, to training robots operating in warehouses, workers in manufacturing jobs could be looking at a future where their tasks become less dangerous and labor-intensive and more creative and challenging.

In a recent study by the Centre for Economic and Business Research (CEBR) which examined the effects of robotics during the past 20 years, researchers found that robots have aided humans rather than replacing them, taking care of less challenging tasks in a way that allows humans to move on to better, higher quality jobs.

In his statement, CEBR’s managing economist, David Whitaker, commented that “Human effort becomes more valuable as it is focused on higher-level tasks, creativity, know-how, and thinking.”

Looking at the future from a broader perspective, advances in robotics could contribute to the overall improved quality of life for workers over the past few centuries. The short-term fear is real, but history shows us that not all is doom and gloom if we’re open to new and unexpected possibilities.