“Run! The robots are coming for your jobs!” has become a common refrain these days.
There’s deep disagreement between economists, tech gurus, and other stakeholders as to whether or not that’s true. If there’s one thing that just about everyone agrees on, however, is that automation and artificial intelligence are in fact a major net positive for the future of labor. Automation and robotics take over the most demanding and repetitive physical tasks, while software programs help streamline workflows and minimize inefficiencies in the workplace. The great promise of AI is not just that it will increase productivity: it has the potential to make jobs that were once guaranteed to come with chronic injuries and pain a thing of the past.
The machines shoulder the burden
In hazardous environments it’s the inclusion of automated machinery that has saved the backs of laborers. Inventory management and shipping have benefitted immensely from automated technology, particularly drones. Instead of humans perched 10m above the floor of a warehouse conducting inventory, Walmart has introduced a fleet of automated drones to do the job instead.
Not only does this save a huge amount of man hours, it also removes the risk of a potentially fatal accidental fall to human workers. At the final stage of delivery, packages can be dropped off by automated drone or driverless truck, eliminating the need for a human truck driver and therefore another contributor to vehicle-based accidents. The upside of drones is especially vast: multiple surveys and studies related to ecommerce logistics indicate that based on key variables of weight, cost, and distance, drones can do the same job currently done by truck for a fraction of the cost.
The addition to robotic arms and shelving units at other points of the inventory management, process has also relieved human workers of the chronic strain of picking up and moving heavy package. We should also consider the diminishing mileage human workers have to cover on foot. Less direct contact between human workers and products also means less opportunity for costly errors such as accidentally dropping a package or a mispick (logistics argot for sending the wrong item to a customer).
Artificial intelligence also plays a role in the governmental functions. While they have a controversial reputation because of their role in the military, unmanned drones have quietly stepped into the dangerous fight against potentially deadly buildings and wildfires. Firefighting has a relatively low occurrence of fatality, with only 31 firefighter deaths in the USA recorded so far this year. While better building codes and safer equipment are primary reasons for this trend, adding drones to a fire department’s arsenal of tools removes humans from the most dangerous of situations such as imminent building collapses.
Another example of AI’s life-saving potential is the cleanup and disposal of toxic materials such as radioactive waste. Remember those heartbreaking stories from Japan after the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster, when elderly members of the community volunteered themselves to clean up waste to save younger workers from a fatal dose of radiation? A team of researchers in Boston have created a dexterous humanoid robot that can do the same manually-complicated work around toxic waste that humans are needed for — all while keeping actual humans far away from cancerous material.
AI saves lives . . .
It’s not just automated machinery that promises to make work more humane; software is playing an increasingly bigger part. While Tesla has occupied much of the hype surrounding autopilot, driver-augmentation software is slowly integrating itself into the nation’s trucking fleet. Numerous companies are working on versions of driver-assisted autopilot with the specific goal of preventing accidents.
For now, the cost of introducing self-driving truck fleets at a commercially scalable level is simply too high — in other words, the fear of truck drivers being replaced by software is overblown. However, the addition of dashcam video and sensors around the perimeter of cars and trucks does offer drivers on the road today an automatic override in case of a quick-reaction accident. That translates to a lower frequency of accidents, lower insurance premium rates, faster delivery times, and most importantly less human casualties — worker or otherwise.
At a recent conference in Seattle, Microsoft showed off a new software program designed to prevent accidents on construction sites. Using multiple angle camera footage, a facial and object recognition software identifies potential hazards and alerts construction management in real time. In case a construction worker picks up a piece of equipment they are not authorized or licensed to use — such as a bulldozer operator handling a jackhammer — AI scans the worker’s face and runs a rapid scan of their onsite permissions.
It’s conceivable that in the future, equipment will contain embedded computer chips that deactivate machinery when an unauthorized user attempts to operate it.
. . . and also increases productivity
While employee welfare and morale is a worthwhile investment in itself, the prospect of increasing productivity is probably most enticing for any business. GPS is a major example of the game-changing impact of AI when it comes to transporting and delivering goods from Point A to B. Of course, commercial GPS is very different from the run-of-the-mill Google Maps app you or I use to get around town.
In Amsterdam, a farm to table meal delivery service called Marleen Kookt partnered with WorkWave, a route management software company. The unique complexity of the Dutch city’s layout — 1,500 bridges, 1,000 km of canals — and their reliance on modified electric bicycles to deliver food to customers meant that relying on a free, conventional GPS wouldn’t work.
Variables such as bicycle and pedestrian-only streets, drawbridges, and roads with embedded tram rails needed to be considered. Ultimately, WorkWave created a custom navigation system that utilized AI to guide delivery workers on the fastest, most convenient route. Before, the company would manually calculate new routes for the 18 food orders each driver carried; now, the software automatically determines the route which allows for the most meals to be delivered in the smallest amount of time. The addition of smarter GPS has resulted in an average time of 30 minutes between when a customer places an order and when it is delivered, as opposed to two hours.
From factory floors to warehouses to delivery trucks, it’s clear that artificial intelligence is making blue-collar jobs better in just about every way. With these sorts of developments in AI only becoming more commonplace in the future, it’s clear that the role of human laborers will diminish. And while there are obvious questions that must be addressed as to what we do with a surplus labor force — such as job retraining or some form of universal basic income — we should celebrate the relegation of back-breaking, potentially dangerous labor to the past. The more automated society becomes, the more we stand to benefit.