The fear that robots are going to take our jobs is nothing new.
PwC’s international jobs automation study predicts that as much as 30 percent of jobs will be lost by the mid-2030s. So, will millions of workers be cast out on the streets? Doubtful. History has proven humans are astonishingly resilient and can prevail despite drastic economic change. Additionally, history shows that robots displacing humans is hardly a new phenomenon.
Humans Are Resilient
At the turn of the 20th century, automation reduced vast numbers of farm jobs, and America faced mass unemployment. In response to such change, the government instituted mandatory high school attendance. The move took a large number of workers previously essential to the U.S. economy out of the fields and in school until age 16. Higher education opened students’ eyes to other career pursuits outside of agriculture and led the U.S. to develop one of the most skilled and productive workforces in the world.
Agriculture is not the only industry significantly affected by automation. Let’s examine the financial industry. In 1967, banks started installing automated teller machines (ATMs). There is no question that ATMs are widely used by customers and have made banks more efficient, freeing up time of human tellers. As explained by David Autor, a professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, ATMs allowed tellers to do more cognitively demanding work as their routine cash-handling tasks receded. Thus, automation in the banking arena freed workers from repetitive tasks allowing them to focus more time and resources on innovation and providing new and enhanced customer banking products and services. Today, in banking and many other industries, technology is advancing so quickly that it is expected we will reach full maturity of the “Autonomy Wave of Automation” on an economy-wide scale in the 2030s. This third wave of automation is one of autonomous artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics.
Go with the Flow
Automation’s Autonomy Wave holds many promises that most experts and executives couldn’t have fathomed a generation ago. According to Kai-Fu Lee, founder of venture capital firm Sinovation Ventures and a top voice on tech in China, AI itself will be larger than all other human tech revolutions combined, including electricity, the Industrial Revolution, the Internet, and mobile Internet.
What’s most astonishing about this wave of automation is that what once made us superior to all other living organisms – our cognitive abilities to think, learn, and make new decisions based on previous experience – is now capable of being performed by machines. Not only are machines able to match our human genius, some may be able to exceed it. In 2017, Facebook shut down an AI engine following its developers’ discovery that the AI had created its own unique language that humans couldn’t understand after the chatbots deviated from script and began communicating without human input. Although that’s simultaneously exciting and horrifying, should we fear a reality of a season 2 Westworld? Isaac Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics” would suggest not.
Advancing Human Capital
Man has always invented technologies to make our lives easier and more robust. The emergence of AI and machine learning (ML) technologies will bring about a new era in automation that will impact companies across nearly every vertical. These technologies will allow robots to execute tasks formerly deemed impossible for mere machines to perform. This does not necessarily mean human workers will be replaced all together. Instead, we will see the emergence of robots augmenting human labor, advancing the skill set of human capital across all levels of the workforce. In essence, workers will become more efficient, productive, and ultimately more valuable when paired with smart technologies.
For instance, robotics and AI have already begun to reshape our world. Perhaps one of the most exciting fields the two are beginning to augment is healthcare, as can be seen from advancements in medical technology (medtech). Many medtech companies today are exploring everything from next-level surgical robotics, biorobotics, mechatronics, and rehabilitation robotics to human-robot interaction, in order to improve treatments. Many of these new robotic devices are already being implemented into hospitals, clinics, patients’ homes and operating rooms.
Surgeons have been one of the first medical specialists to welcome the assistance of robots to augment their work. The National Institute of Health (NIH) currently leverages surgical robots to assist with a range of operations, including urology, colorectal, and prostate procedures, with ongoing efforts to expand into other types of procedures and disciplines. Shafi Ahmed, a consultant abdominal surgeon at Barts Health NHS Trust, even believes future generations of surgeons may be trained exclusively to perform robotic surgery in the same way that today’s surgeons are being taught mainly laparoscopic surgery, rather than the open surgery that was once common practice.
From a clinical trial standpoint, AI has the potential to change every stage of the process, from finding a trial to enrollment to medication adherence. According to a Cognizant report on recruitment forecasts, “roughly 80 percent of clinical trials fail to meet enrollment timelines, and approximately one-third of Phase III clinical study terminations are due to enrollment difficulties.” Given AI is capable of scanning through data at a hyper-fast rate impossible for humans to match, the application of an AI software allows such technology to analyze data drawn from a wide variety of sources to help predict how a drug might affect a person’s cells and tissues. The resulting streamlined process will lead to better trials, bringing drugs to market faster.
Artificial intelligence and machine learning also have been instrumental in faster and more accurate patient diagnosis. At the University of Tokyo, an elderly patient was treated for Leukemia by Watson, a cognitive supercomputer. Watson in ten minutes explored 20 million cancer research reports, enabling the computer to prescribe a personalized treatment for the patient. This is just one example of how doctors will increasingly be able to leverage big data analytics through supercomputers to support decision making efforts given these machines are capable of analyzing huge segments of medical data sets to find correlations with past precedents and draw dependable conclusions.
Atomwise is another medtech company that recognizes the potential of these supercomputers. In the 2015 Ebola scare, Atomwise used supercomputers to derive therapies from a database of molecular structures that found safe, existing medicines that could be redesigned to treat the Ebola virus.
Atomwise’s supercomputer is just one of many currently in development. Furthermore, as the convergence of AI, big data, and increasing computing power increases, new product design and simulation tools are emerging. Thus, we are already seeing new jobs become not only available but necessary for the advancement of these tools. In addition, the creation of these tools demands that more humans become trained in more-advanced positions in design, maintenance, programming, and robotic problem-solving.
Time to Give Back
These are just a few applications where intelligent robotics are profoundly affecting humans by advancing healthcare and how the field is changing to adapt to the applications. The adoption of smart automation and intelligent robots through AI will provide humans with the most valuable and precious resource, time. Will that time given to us be spent sitting back and letting the robots do our work? If the future is any reflection of our past, humans will rise with the robots, working together to create a revolution few have yet to imagine.