Jobless claims have decreased to their lowest level in a month. This is good news, but tempered by the U.S. unemployment rate remaining at 8.3 percent for a second month. Could robots be the reason?
As Alex Hern writes in the New Statesman, we face a future of a “jobless recovery” not because of outsourcing work to China, not because of too many government regulations, but because there really are machines that, like Rosey the housekeeping robot in the Jetsons cartoon, can do tasks once thought only doable by humans.
Hern reviews an analysis of a new National Bureau of Economic Research working paper by the Washington Post’s Dylan Matthews. Since the 1980s, jobs that involve “routine” tasks, defined as “activities that can be performed by following a well-defined set of procedures,” have been disappearing. The labor market has is becoming increasingly polarized:
At one end of the market are non-routine cognitive jobs, “such as physicians, public relations managers, financial analysts, computer programmers, and economists” (and, one would hope, journalists), while at the other end are non-routine manual occupations “including janitors, gardeners, manicurists, bartenders, and home health aides”. Polarisation of the labour market comes from technological improvement replacing people in routine jobs, both manual and cognitive – “secretaries, bank tellers, retail salespeople … dressmakers, cement masons, and meat processing workers.”
Who needs a secretary when there’s email and automated phone trees, or a store clerk when you can scan the barcodes of the contents of your grocery cart?
Here are nine jobs that robots can do — which is to say, nine jobs that we humans may find ourselves shut out from and all too soon.
1. Writing Business Articles
Forbes.com now employs is using “a set of algorithms called ‘Narrative Science’ to write their business stories for them,” says Martha Gill in New Statesman. Noting that readers (and business journalists) are the “real victims here,” Gill comments:
“It is perhaps a little soon to say whether we’re on the threshold of a dystopian, faceless society ruled by automatons and powered by human slaves, but let’s just say a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
2. Making Burritos
BurritoB0t, the creation of NYU grad student Marko Manriquez, enables you to order from your iPhone and applies the salsa and guacamole with sliders.
3. Bathing Senior Citizens in Japan
In Japan, robots help feed, bathe and otherwise care for the elderly. But senior citizens have been less than enthusiastic. The $4,300 “communication robot” ifbot can converse, sing and provide trivia quizzes — but nursing home residents prefer stuffed animals.
4. Spying and Military Surveillance
Researchers at MIT, Harvard University and Seoul National University have created a squishable robot that can crawl, earthworm-like, across surfaces. It can be pounded with a hammer and stepped on and still keep moving. Able to makes it way through rough terrain or cram itself through tight spaces, roboworm could be the super soldier spy of the future.
5. Picking Your Medication
Pharmacists and pharmacy technicians could become obsolete. Robots can do a better job sorting medication.
6. Handling Your Legal Affairs
Software exists that can handle the research, analysis, writing and arguing done by paralegals and lawyers and without accruing all those fees in billable hours.
7. Grading Student Papers
As a former writing instructor, as little as I like the idea of a robot grading essays (and reportedly not doing a bad job), I can say that grading 60 essays about one scene in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” can leave a human being feeling like as if she is a “grading machine.” I do, though, think that we human beings can pick up on things in student writing that robograder wouldn’t.
8. Teaching Autistic Children
University of Hertfordshire researchers have created Kaspar the robot to help autistic children learn to communicate.
At the Madonna School, a faith-based school for children with disabilities in Omaha, two-foot tall Evvie Roboto is being used to teach social skills. Because Evie lacks the “facial expressions, vocal inflections and hand gestures that humans throw out with abandon,” and that can be very puzzling, and aggravating, to autistic children, researchers are hopeful that the robot can teach them social skills, after which they can learn to apply them to interactions with actual human beings.
Google is developing a car that drives itself; the self-driving car, controlled by computers, has gone 300,000 miles without a single accident.
Imagine an automated taxi in Manhattan and never having to have that awkward non-conversation with the driver again.
Personally, I would miss those. Call me old-fashioned: I do like human interaction.
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