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The Fear of Artificial Intelligence in the Workplace Is Overstated

Scott is an award-winning professional educator with almost 25 years of experience.

Artificial Intelligence and Robotics in the Near Future

There is no doubt that eventually, many of the jobs in our workforce will be replaced by robotics and artificial intelligence, (AI). Many educational and business leaders point to this already occurring in places such as: manufacturing and information management. In other areas AI is not having that great of an impact. Virtually everyone owns a cell phone and it is a handheld portable computer with more power than Deep Blue, the worlds most powerful supercomputer of only 20 years ago. While this is true, our most powerful AI simulations cannot even emulate the reactions and thoughts of an insect. Artificial intelligence is more of a smoke and mirrors attempt to make a program look lifelike, than to actually think. Even if we develop AI to be far more capable than it is today, it will not be able to creatively think or problem solve, outside of its limited programming parameters, for the foreseeable future.

Robotics are in even worse shape. If we are able to successfully develop a powerful AI which might allow us to replace some workers such as truck drivers or warehouse operators, we still need the physical equipment to carry out that function. Robotics give the computer mind the physical reality to put action to the thoughts, or in this case programming. Technically, we can build robots for all sorts of purposes and there is steady improvement in this field. All of the current serious non-hobbyist development is centered around a few key industries. Medical technology is finding uses for robotics and automation, as is the military, and manufacturing. Deploying robotic manufacturing equipment is very expensive and the uses for these robotic automation innovations on the assembly line is limited to certain tasks that do not require the dexterity of a human. Even proven technologies, such as robotic bomb disposal systems do not rely on AI to solve the issues, but instead are remotely controlled by their operators. This is also true of military drones, as they cannot effectively discern between hostile and friendlies and cannot make a judgement about targeting priorities. This technology is coming, but it is likely a bit further off than the futurists are pointing out.

Science fiction books and television continue to tease audiences with advanced robots which bring the promise of support, safety, companionship, and service in the near future. Even in these stories, it is normal for the robots to have issues and become a threat to the humans in the plot. The robots malfunction or become sentient and aware of their own reality and existence. This may happen eventually, but at this juncture, we are not yet really close to achieving programming that is anything but extremely rudimentary.

One other area which hampers the effectiveness of robotic systems, is the lack of power resources to keep the machine operating. Most of the current robotic technology either uses a form of Lithium battery technology to generate enough power to operate the robot, or it remains tethered to a wall socket for adequate power. A robot that is plugged in is restricted by the need to stay connected to power. if the goal is to develop human replacement technology, then people are on the right track, but we are either several decades away from bridging these technological gaps, or perhaps even a century removed from the big changes that will occur when AI and robotics are no longer in their infancy.

The Economics of Robotics

In simple terms, it is not economically feasible for most organizations to automate every aspect of production. Many small businesses have leveraged their labor with devices such as computer-controlled milling machines, or advanced 3D printers. While these types of technology are disruptive, they are being used to enhance creativity, rather than do away with labor. Fast methods for producing custom parts and components are not the same as assembly line production techniques, and lend themselves more to rapid prototyping, along with research and design. There are instances of production models using 3D printing technology, and there are some 3D print factories in China that can make thousands of plastic parts in a day. This is only cost-effective for short runs of components and does not compete with older technologies, such as plastic mold injection. There is technology to 3D print in metal, but the technology is limited to very weak alloys.

The auto industry has been scaling back on assembly line employees for decades, due to automation and robotics. This is not a new trend. When Henry Ford built his assembly line, he made blacksmiths who worked forges and made custom parts, an obsolete part of the industry. The new employees were less trained and more specialized, but again new jobs were created. This is true of the electronic and information age as it adapts to our modern examples of re-industrialization. Of course, there will be disrupted sectors and people will need to be flexible in their thinking, but robots and AI will never replace human interaction and soft skills. At least not in this century.

The education systems around the globe are attempting to grapple with the challenges of a new age workforce that will need to be more flexible, problem-solving and competitive. The internet has become a great equalizing force as the information of the global scientific and thought centers have been put out there for everyone to share and grow as a worldwide phenomenon. In the 20th century, the technology gaps between the G10 nations and the rest of the world was decades in length. Due to this sharing of information on a global scale, these technological leads have shrunk and the gap is closing. This is where the sense of reduced opportunities for production and factory jobs has been instilled.

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As the labor for the manufacturing in the West moves to nations with lower socioeconomic expectations and a lower standard of living, it becomes very difficult for factories in the West to be able to compete with the far cheaper labor available elsewhere. The real reason behind the reduced labor needs is not just the improvements in robotics, AI, and automation, it is more associated with the globalization of our world economy. It is difficult for American and European workers to compete in a marketplace where a worker in southeast Asia will work for ten US dollars a day, and stay competitive. It is also impossible to offset labor that is this cheap with automation and robotics, as the cost of developing and deploying these technologies is prohibitive and not in the economic interests of the world.

Automation Is Not New

Since the dawn of the industrial revolution we have been innovating, automating and changing the face of our job market.

© 2019 Scott P Davis

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