The idea of robots taking over the economy.

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This was a speech I made for my Oral Communications class regarding the idea of technology (robots) taking over the economy.

Today I’ll be discussing past and current examples of technological dependence in the economy. To get a better sense of this age old fear of technology replacing humans, we also have to go back in time. So in essence I will be looking at past and current examples of robotics shifting the workforce and how they will influence future circumstances.

So according to a study published by Oxford University, after the 1950s (not too far back), librarians had become a very large profession. When the mainframe computer came out, however, in 1957, librarians were deathly afraid they were going to lose their jobs. That didn’t end up happening. Jobs continued to increase for librarians for a long time afterwards. It wasn’t until about 40 years after the mainframe computer came out, in the 1990s, that the profession started and continues today to face a steep decline. During the 1990’s, the grand Internet came into play as well as the widespread use of the personal computer. It’s clear less librarians are needed for a job that can be rapidly automated. Need a book recommendation? There’s an app for that. Need help finding a book? Online catalog has your back. It won’t be long before librarians aren’t needed at all, with increasing digital book sales these days.

The same idea applies to spreadsheets. Spreadsheets back in the day were literally large pieces of paper and the accountants did calculations by hand. Again, when the personal computer came into play, mundane calculations were left to the computers and programs like Excel replaced the best accountants.

Going back to an older example, when the Great Depression hit, 20% of the US population were farmers

Now, transitioning to today, farmers consist of about 2% of the population, even though food production is at all time high. The US continues to produce more with less.

In this day and age, using software developed by Northwestern University, a company called Narrative Science specializes in machine-generated stories. Initially specializing in sports news, the application automatically generated the numerically oriented stories. It has since attracted other sectors including health care, retail, pharmaceuticals and marketing and has significantly improved its human indistinguishability and raised over 40 million to further improve its artificially intelligent algorithms.

What about drug store pharmacists? Well, they’re not going to be replaced quite yet. Recently though, the University of California San Francisco Medical Center launched an automated, robotics-controlled pharmacy at two UCSF hospitals. Once computers electronically receive medication orders, the robots pick, package, and dispense individual doses of pills. The pharmacy system which works with a few specialized human pharmacists has so far prepared 350,000 doses of medication without a single error.

Then there’s Baxter. Meet Baxter everyone. And make sure to congratulate him too. On February 17 of this year, this $22,000 robot successfully worked 2,160 straight hours (90 days) in a molding factory in Pennsylvania where he had to grab plastic parts off an assembly line, place them in a box with appropriate separators, and then count them to make sure each box had the same number of plastic parts. This sort of task usually requires 6 willing employees since the work is often monotonous, mundane, and extremely dirty. The number of Baxter’s that have been made so far are still in the 100s but the company Rethink Robotics boasts about $80 million in venture capital. Baxter represents a long-term view of the way technology will transform work, lives, and culture, much like the industrial revolution did in the 18th century.

Speaking of the future, the advantages robots have today against humans will still hold later. Robots are never bored or tired, make fewer mistakes, more efficient, don’t ask for raises, can work during SuperBowl season or holidays, are more physically powerful, save companies millions, no liabilities and can be put in dangerous locations, higher production, better quality, faster, and the list goes on.

Most robots have already replaced the typical labor worker. But in the past 30 years, according to a study done by The Economist which was published this January, software and robots have even thrived at replacing the average-wage, middle-skill, routine-heavy worker. The style of the study by the way, is an academic paper, not popular science and according to this same inquiry, nearly half of American jobs today could be automated “in a decade or two”. So which half?

Fortunately, the study also provided a chart of jobs with a percent likelihood of being replaced by machines and software. They are mostly routine-based jobs (telemarketing) and work that can be solved by smart algorithms (tax preparation). On the flip side, we see that jobs like dentists, athletic trainers, and chemical engineers are less likely to be replaced because they require more high levels of creativity, emotional intelligence, and physical flexibility, which are all components robots will continue to lack for a while.

Technological advances are contributing to declining costs in robotics. Over the past decades, robot prices have fallen about 10 percent annually and are expected to decline at an even faster pace in the near future (naturally in part due to Moore’s Law). It’s clear then that in order for workers to win the race against the machine, they will have to acquire high levels of creative and social skills.

Evidence has been provided from the past, present, and future. Robotics , technology in general, has, is, and will provide major breakthroughs in the economy that one must be prepared to adapt to if they want to continue possessing a job.

In the 19th century we saw the steam engine, rail way, the light bulb. 20th century, the automobile, TV, nuclear weapons, space craft, Internet. 21st century, biotech, nano-tech, fusion, fission, AI, robotics.

Should it surprise any of you that we will soon be able to create cybernetic individuals that are indistinguishable from us, let alone have an abundance of superior robots that will replace all the mundane routine jobs many have today? Something to think about.

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