Robots: stealing our jobs or solving labour shortages?

Businesses increasingly turned to automation to deal with rapidly changing circumstances as a result of the global coronavirus pandemic. In hospitals, supermarkets, and other settings, floor-cleaning and disinfecting robots for microbe-zapping were implemented. Robotic operations were a marketing tool that some companies found advantageous, due to the increased emphasis on hygiene and social distance. White Castle, an American fast-food chain, began using robots to cook hamburgers. This was in an effort reduce human contact with the food.
The worst days of the pandemic are hopefully behind us. However, the jobs story is unexpectedly complicated. While overall unemployment rates are still high, the UK and US are facing severe shortages of workers, especially in occupations that offer difficult work and low salaries. While a quarter million British workers are still unemployed in 2019, job vacancies have increased 20% compared to pre-pandemic levels. This is because many employers are struggling to fill many jobs. It is not clear what the reasons are for this shortage of workers. One common belief is that furloughed workers were allowed to stay out of work by receiving extended payments. Evidence from several states in the US that have stopped providing unemployment benefits earlier suggests that extended payments might not have been a significant factor. Many workers may simply have reassessed whether they are willing to take on difficult, often low-paying jobs in exchange for lower pay. The UK's Brexit has greatly exacerbated this situation. The UK has lost at least 200,000 EU citizens, mostly from Eastern Europe, who used to hold positions in logistics, agriculture, and transportation.

This has made it a compelling incentive for businesses and individuals to invest in automation to meet the workforce shortage. British farmers are facing the lack of seasonal workers from Eastern Europe as a result, and interest in agricultural robots is increasing. Two robots have been developed by Small Robot Company in the UK. They can kill weeds on wheat fields and reduce chemical pesticide use. The robot first autonomously patrols a wheat field and uses multiple cameras to map the exact areas where weeds are growing. After collecting the data, a second robot, with five arms, follows and kills the weeds using an electric shock.

The most modern distribution centers today use fully autonomous robots. Photograph: vanit Janthra/Alamy

Another startup, Xihelm received venture funding from UK in 2018. It has created a robot that can harvest delicate fruits and vegetables in greenhouses. The robot can pick tomatoes by hand using artificial intelligence. The US has seen a severe shortage of workers. White Castle has now introduced french fry automation alongside its new hamburger robots. Sweetgreen, a national chain, has also acquired a startup that offers robotic kitchen technology. The Chicago McDonald's restaurant chain is testing an artificial intelligence-powered voice system to process orders at drive-thrus.

It is expected that artificial intelligence and robotics will have a significant impact on the job market.

It is clear that artificial intelligence, robotics, and other forms automation are on the rise due to the pandemic and associated workforce shortage. The UK is witnessing this trend intensify as Brexit's effect on the workforce makes it more apparent. The reality is that many of these technologies will not be available in time to solve the immediate problems faced by employers. Xihelms tomato picking robot is still in testing and is not available for general purchase. The UK's most pressing worker shortages are in transport and logistics. According to one estimate, there are currently less than 100,000 truck drivers in the country. This has caused shortages in everything, from petrol to McDonalds milkshakes to. In the near future, there will not be any robots to save the day. Although self-driving trucks are being developed by a few startups in Silicon Valley and around the world, it is still years away from being commercially viable. The wait for self-driving trucks to be able to navigate local roads with no driver is likely to continue.

However, over the course of a decade or longer, the impact of artificial intelligence/robotics on the job market will be substantial. In some areas, the technologies could lead to significant change in the next few years. Many workers will soon realize that automation technology is not only affecting the low-paying, less desirable jobs in areas where there are labor shortages. Many of the jobs that employers are having difficulty filling may be resistant to automation. As AI and robotics continue to advance, workers will want to keep better-paying jobs.

A hamburger-cooking robot is available in Los Angeles to help you get the patty on. Photograph by Miso Robotics

Take, for instance, Ocado or Amazon's distribution centers. These warehouses are a bright spot for employment, offering thousands of jobs as online shopping has become more popular. These warehouses would have been bustling with hundreds of workers scurrying around tall shelves that contained thousands of items a decade ago. There would have been towers that took new inventory and stored it on shelves, and pickers who were responsible for retrieving the items to fulfill customer orders. It would have been a constant mad scramble that could be compared to an anthill. A typical worker could trek 12 miles in a single shift.

This bustling motion is almost mirror-imaged in today's modern distribution centers. The workers are now the ones who do the picking and stowing, while the shelves move around in a whirling fashion. Fully autonomous robots transport the inventory between destinations. Amazon has more than 200,000 robots in its distribution centers worldwide. Ocado employs over 1,000 in a single Andover, Hampshire facility.

Amazon and Ocado are still employing large human workforces because robots cannot perform picking and stowing operations that involve human-level visual perception and dexterity. However, this is likely to change. As well as many well-funded startups, both companies are currently working to develop more dexterous robotics. Amazons CEO Jeff Bezos stated at a conference in 2019: "Robotic grasping" is likely to be a solution in 10 years. This means that many of the thousands of workers currently employed in these facilities will soon become redundant. As robots become more advanced, they will also be used in more places like restaurants and supermarkets.

Startup company Xihelms has developed a harvesting robot that can pick delicate fruits and vegetables in greenhouses. Photograph: Xihelm

AI will soon make it clear that white-collar workers with more education than they do. Software automation is expected to affect any job that requires the routine analysis and manipulation of information. For example, some of the largest media organizations in the world use AI systems to automatically generate news articles. Intelligent legal algorithms analyze contracts and predict the outcome of litigation. AI is beginning to show a talent in routine computer programming. Knowledge work is often easier to automate and more affordable than work that requires manual manipulation. If the job is purely information-based, no expensive robot is required. Also, it is not necessary to overcome the technical difficulties involved in replicating human mobility or dexterity.

AI will soon be a reality for white-collar workers with more education.

As technology advances, our post-pandemic world will be more divided. In the long term, there will be winners and losers in the workforce. Losers will include those who are primarily focused on repetitive, predictable tasks. This is true regardless of whether they are intellectual or physical in nature and often without regard to education. One of three groups will likely be the winners: First, skilled trades workers such as electricians and plumbers who perform work that requires mobility, dexterity and problem-solving ability even in unpredictable environments. A care worker helping an elderly person with their daily needs is also eligible for this same status. These jobs are beyond the capabilities of any robot, and will continue to be safe in the future. Second, workers who have to develop deep and complex relationships with others will be safe. These could include care roles such as nursing or business or educational positions that require complex human interactions. Although AI is progressing in this area, for example chatbots can already provide basic mental health support. However, it will likely take a while before machines can truly form meaningful relationships with people. This category also includes intellectual work that is creative, or activities that are truly non-routine and unpredictable in nature. Artificial intelligence is likely to augment, rather than replace these workers' efforts. In many occupations, there might be a winner-takes-all scenario. The most creative people will rise to the top while the rest of us will be more focused on routine tasks.

Individuals should move away from predictable, routine work to find a rewarding career. This advice is not feasible for society as a whole. There are serious questions about its viability. The trend of workers moving from one industry to another has been a result of technological advances. While workers were able to move from farms to factories as agriculture became more automated, they still did routine work. Later, workers moved into routine jobs in service industries. A large portion of the workforce will need to adapt to non-routine roles due to the rise of artificial intelligence. It is not clear if enough of these jobs will be created. Even if they are, many workers won't have the personality traits and talents required to assume creative or relationship-based positions.

In the next few years and decades, it will be a major challenge to design a society that is able to adapt to artificial intelligence and enable everyone to prosper. This will require a focus on education and retraining for workers who are able to make the transition. There will also need to be an improvement in safety net and a new social contract for those who will eventually be left behind.