What comes to mind when you think of a robot?
A vacuum spinning around on the hardwood floor harassing your dog?
A humanoid that has life-like skin and piercing eyes?
A mechanical arm that grips objects in a science lab?
Or a computer that has human-like intelligence and responds to commands you give it, but doesn’t have a face?
It’s easy to pay attention to the exterior of what makes a robot a robot when you imagine one. It’s usually made of a special type of plastic. It might have flashing lights, metal screws and wires, some type of face or control board, is automated, and speaks in a mechanical voice or makes beeping or whirring noises.
But what really makes robots interesting doesn’t concern their exteriors, but what’s inside them— their programmed and automated elements. Their elements that work for us.
Etymology of “robot”
The term “robot” comes from the Czech playwright, novelist and journalist named Karel Capek. And it’s derived from the Old Church Slavonic word “rabota” which means “servitude of forced labor.”
Capek introduced the term in 1920 in his play “RUR,” or “Rossum’s Universal Robots.” Professor Markel described the following about the etymology of “robot” in his NPR interview:
“And he [Capek] was writing this play about a company, Rossum’s Universal Robots, that was actually using biotechnology. They were mass-producing workers using the latest biology, chemistry and physiology to produce workers who lack nothing but a soul. They couldn’t love. They couldn’t have feelings. But they could do all the works that humans preferred not to do. And, of course, the company was soon inundated with our orders.”
This history of the word “robot” is incredibly interesting for a few reasons:
- Robots were created to complete jobs that humans didn’t want to do.
- Humans had to carry out the labor of creating the robots.
- Robots still lacked human sentiments and a sense of mortality.
Now, as we ask, “Are robots going to take our jobs?” let’s keep those main points in mind.
Definition of “robot” used here
There are a variety of highly specialized individuals out there who make the distinction between the following (as they should):
- Automation Software
- Robotic Process Automation (RPA)
- Desktop Automation
- Enterprise RPA
- Intelligent Process Automation
- Software Robot
- Adaptive Automation
- Artificial Intelligence
- Machine Learning
- Virtual Workforce
However, in the remainder of this post, I should make it clear that when I refer to robots, I am referring to an entity that is completing work for humans, by humans, automatically.
The definition of “robot” used here will be: “a machine capable of carrying out a complex series of actions automatically, especially one programmable by a computer.”
Although many devices and entities can learn and adapt to their surroundings, they still have their limitations and cannot either create themselves from scratch or carry out work without set parameters, data sets, and programs that humans provide them.
And while robots typically have arms, legs, and some sort of head or face, that is not what makes them a robot. What makes a robot a robot is its ability to automatically perform tasks for humans, within a certain set of parameters provided to it, usually via a computer program or software.
Are robots still created to complete jobs that humans don’t want to do?
While there are robots out there for our entertainment, some of the first patented robots were invented to complete jobs that humans didn’t want to do.
The first patented digital and programmable robot was invented by George Devol in 1954 and was named the Unimate. General Motors used it to lift pieces of hot metal from die casting machines at the Inland Fisher Guide Plant in New Jersey.
Hundreds of years before the Unimate was created, Leonardo DaVinci drew designs for a mechanical knight around 1495. And before that, robots (then known as “instruments” or “automatons”) were referred to throughout ancient texts.
Aristotle, most notably, mentioned that the human condition was dependent on what machines can and cannot do, and that we can imagine that machines will do much more. If machines did more of our work, everyone, even slaves, would become freer. (Politics, Book One, Part IV)
The main purpose for robots, machines, or any type of automated object over the centuries has been to complete a job for humans that they didn’t want to do. While some robots are used for entertainment, the ones we create on a mass scale are those devices that take work away from us.
Uh-oh. So, yes, robots are taking jobs away from us.
Let’ see some of the jobs available where robots are already replacing humans:
- Factory Worker
- Retail Sales Associate
- Security Guard
- Food Delivery Driver
- Hotel Receptionist
- Telephone Sales Person
- Construction Worker
- Tour Guide
- Hospital Administrator
Are we giving robots these jobs because we don’t want them anymore?
While all the fields on the list above are by no means completely run by robots (yet?), it’s important to note that the list includes blue-collar, white-collar, and highly specialized occupations.
Oxford University researchers have estimated that 47 percent of U.S. jobs could be automated within the next two decades. If this is the case, then what will the individuals holding positions automated or run by robots do when and if robots take them over? Will workers be able to adapt to the demand for new jobs in time?
Will looking at the robots that are already being massed produced now be an indicator of which occupations are at risk first, or provide insight into whether they are occupations we truly don’t want to do?
What robots are being created on a mass-scale?
Are humans still involved in the labor of creating and maintaining robots?
The most notable mass-produced robots are cars that drive autonomously, the robot vacuum, and flying drones. Differences between industrial, collaborative, and service robots continue to mold together too, and the Internet of Things (IoT) is allowing the field of robotics and automated work to take off.
The International Federation of Robots claims that robots will create a lot of jobs:
“Robotics will be a major driver for global job creation over the next five years. The announcement is based on a study conducted by the market research firm, Metra Martech, “Positive Impact of Industrial Robots on Employment”.
One million industrial robots currently in operation have been directly responsible for the creation of close to three million jobs, the study concluded. A growth in robot use over the next five years will result in the creation of one million high quality jobs around the world. Robots will help to create jobs in some of the most critical industries of this century: consumer electronics, food, solar & wind power, and advanced battery manufacturing to name just a few.”
Robots are anticipated to replace humans within critical industries doing jobs that are unsafe, would not be economically viable in a high wage economy, or jobs that would be impossible for humans to do. So even if humans are being replaced by robots, it’s because humans want to be replaced by the robots in certain areas.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that humans must be around to tell these robots what to do, and humans must create them or program them. They would not exist if humans didn’t have a desire or need to create them in the first place.
So, even if robots are taking our jobs, we can always determine what jobs we want them to take. And we can tell them when they should start or stop working… Right?
Will robots ever be capable of human sentiments or consciousness?
Does it Matter?
If robots are going to handle most human jobs (including the ones we want), they must also possess human sentiments and be self-aware…that is, unless we are telling them what to do and providing them with set parameters. And even with these set parameters, odd or unique things will happen that robots won’t know how to handle because they will be outside of their programmed parameters. Why? Because robots must interact with humans and work for humans if they are to handle human jobs. And humans are weird, sometimes erratic, and a lot of times not rational at all. The capacity to respond to other humans as a human is still up to humans.
Imagine a customer care service representative on the phone who is instructed by their employer to follow a script when assisting you with your concern. It can be infuriating at times, especially if you have a unique concern that falls outside of their script. You need empathy, their critical thinking skills, and creativity to solve your unique problem, not their regurgitated spiel.
Furthermore, the science is just not there yet. Virtual reality is still not reality.
Most robots and automated machines are based on digital binary systems. These systems cannot capture complex human thoughts or emotions or create them on their own. Unlike digital computers, brains contain a host of analogue cellular and molecular processes, biochemical reactions, electrostatic forces, global synchronized neuron firing at specific frequencies, and unique structural and functional connections with countless feedback loops. Computers cannot emulate this because they are not biological, but man-made.
In the long run, whether robots will ever emulate the human brain is a moot point because it will only happen if it’s scientifically possible (and this is very far from being proved), and if humans want this to happen in the first place. And if this does happen, in hundreds of years from now, I hope we are at least smart enough to include a “destruct now” emergency button, just in case.
To briefly sum up the meditations in this post:
Are robots taking human jobs? Yes.
But they are mostly jobs humans don’t want to do anymore, or need help doing because they are unsafe, tedious, too difficult, or impossible for humans to do. At least, that’s the case for now.
Because humans are still in control of creating robots, they are still determining and building the labor force and what robots can do. It isn’t quite “man vs machine,” where the robots win. And the potential for this happening anytime soon is very slim.
And because robots are non-organic, non-sentient things created by humans, they can’t take our jobs…unless they are the jobs we don’t want. We program them with the jobs we want them to complete. And that is worth meditating about.
What are your thoughts?
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