Robots Are Far Beyond Sci-Fi

Robots have already earned their place in a surprising range of jobs, including retail fast food, automobile assembly, underwater bridge inspection, surgery, in-hospital courier service, warehouse stocking and shipping, cellphone fabrication and assembly, and organizing of “discovery” materials — a task once done by first-year lawyers and law clerks.  From a consumer’s perspective, robots are 90% under the surface.  We will gradually feel their presence in lower costs and we will feel displaced if they take our job.

In the near future, robots will extend their role to tasks requiring more autonomy such as the driver in driverless cars and trucks, autonomous surgery, and negotiating the terms of a contract.  The expanded scope will be made possible by superior software which matches the real-time situation the robot detects to a rich database of how to handle different situations.

Robotic surgery done today usually is robotic-assisted surgery. The best known is the da Vinci system.  Its surgeon wears a headset showing visuals of the surgical site and the surgeon manipulates the robot’s scalpel, forceps, clamps and suture instruments.  A compelling advantage is that the surgery is done through very small incisions.  A newly developed autonomous robotic surgeon is called Smart-Tissue Autonomous Robot or STAR.

Use of fully autonomous surgical robots can be expected to spread despite some reluctance by professional associations. For example, a Johnson & Johnson robot that could handle surgical anesthesia has been introduced, but the anesthetists fought back.  It is unlikely that robots will sideline many surgeons and anesthetists, but they may replace clerical workers in healthcare and law practices.

So-called e-discovery systems are already in use at law firms. They mine huge volumes of material for damning evidence.  While the simplest software looks for specific keywords, more sophisticated systems can detect patterns of behavior of interest to lawyers. This work once consumed the lives of first-year associates; now computers do it faster, at lower cost, and with about as much success as humans.

The cost of robots should continue dropping.  In 2015, 31,464 robots were ordered in North America at a cost of $1.8 billion or $57,000 each.  The surgery robots are estimated to cost $1.5 million apiece, so clearly there is a wide variation in pricing for robot.  Some of the more sophisticated ones have hydraulics to lift cars and position them for high precision welding or painting a car’s outside and inside.  Some special robots are equipped to operate in environments that are hostile to humans such as underwater or surrounded by poisonous gases or fumes, or near hot metal sparks.

Some robots are small, with special sensors and a few physical abilities for tending machines (e.g. band-saw or lathe) that needs button pushing, flipping switches and turning control knobs.  Most robots can operate around the clock without stopping except for short periods of maintenance.  These inexpensive, inexhaustible machine tender robots are what will replace modestly skilled factory workers.

Fast Food employment is also in the crosshairs for robot replacement.  CKE operates 6,000 outlets under the Carl’s Jr and Hardee brands.  It pays its crews an average of $11 per hour and even at that cost level, some functions such as onsite order entry will be less costly when done by robot.  A move to $15 per hour would accelerate and perhaps expand the transition.

High volume job losses are starting to hit China’s electronics factories such as Foxconn, where many of the world’s cellphones are made.  Foxconn announced that 60,000 workers will be replaced by robots.  Ironically, many of the low-skilled US manufacturing jobs we lost to low cost foreign workers are now being lost to low-priced robots.  The replacement trend will probably accelerate, but since robot prices do not vary greatly by location, the US may be able to once again become competitive on total cost and repatriate at least some of the manufacturing.

Robotics will not always present that opportunity.  Despite its strong reputation for speed and quality, Intel chose to exit the PC chip business because of stiff competition from others such as AMD.  It announced the layoff of 12,000 employees.  Evidently, manufacturing robotics did not provide an attractive solution to its problems.

While we would like to believe that society is better off due to cost reductions associated with robots replacing workers, there is no guarantee.  Certainly, the benefits will flow disproportionately away from the displaced workers, and it is unlikely that the displaced workers have the skills to qualify for the hard to fill jobs listed by 24% of Chinese firms and 40% of US firms.