Robots are ideal for jobs that are repetitive or dangerous. Robots don't need sleep, air conditioning, or even lighting. For these reasons and others, robots have already stolen most of America's manufacturing jobs. Today, even jobs in low-wage countries are at risk. China's largest private-sector employer Foxconn has already announced plans to replace part of its workforce with one million robots.
For amazing videos on what robots are already capable of, take a look at the videos below:
Kiva's robots grab packages in Amazon warehouses:
ABB's speedy PickMaster robot is used especially for food sorting (the video is Japanese, but ABB is actually Swiss)
Watch robot arms in action at BMW's Munich plant:
Robot arm positioning is accurate down to hundredths of a millimeter:
If robots can already do this, what will they do next?
Manufacturing and agriculture have already lost millions of jobs to machines, but so far the service sector, which employs 80% of working Americans, has remained largely unmechanized. This is not to say that the service sector doesn't use technology - clearly it does. Rather, in the service sector technology is a complement, not a substitute, to labor. However, robots are only getting better. It's only a matter of time before robots are cheaper than humans at performing service sector jobs. Below are the jobs I think are ripest for replacement by robots:
Suppose you invented a machine that could prepare hamburgers less expensively than a minimum wage worker. How much do you think such a machine would be worth to McDonald's? McDonald's has about half a million employees, many of whom repeat simple tasks like assembling burgers, frying fries, and taking orders from customers. Machines that can cheaply and reliably make food are another multibillion dollar opportunity.
Here are examples of machines already in development:
- A hamburger-making robot (0 videos)
- A sushi-making robot (3 videos)
- A pizza-making robot (1 video)
- Bartending robots (1 video)
Self-checkout machines are already showing up at supermarkets and Jacks in the Boxes and other retailers. Admittedly, some self-checkout machines are terrible (e.g., “unexpected item in the bagging area”). However, as costs fall and designs improve, these robot cashiers will become commonplace. They save the store money and space, and the save the consumer time wasted in lines. Technology like RFID tags, which cost as little as three cents and have already obviated the need for lines at tollbridges, may soon eliminate grocery lines altogether.
I don't know much about these, but smart people seem to think they're viable. And smart people in herds have never been wrong.
Here's a video of an autonomous car trying to park:
A big barrier to widespread use of robots is the need to custom design or custom program them for each job. Specialization and programming are expensive. Multipurpose robots that can be trained by regular people with no programming experience is a huge opportunity that may pave the way for widespread adoption of robot labor. The robotics industry is already working on this, and if they succeed, it could be a game changer.
The biggest advantage that human labor has over machine labor is adaptability. Ironically, if technological innovation stagnates, the premium for adaptability will shrink, and we may see far more companies making long-term investments in mechanical labor.
Coming sometime: Part 4, companies that increase labor efficiency