Will your job be terminated by robots?

There is a lot of noise in the press at the moment about the rise of robots and what this will mean for jobs. The following article looks at the background and what impact this is likely to have on installers.

Hollywood has a great line in films about robots. The human race is doomed. How will this happen? The “singularity” will be reached, when robots become more intelligent than humans. Then, why would they want the planet cluttered up with the likes of us?

Of course, it’s Hollywood’s job to sell films, not produce accurate predictions. So take all of this with a truck load of salt. Having worked in the computer industry for many years, it doesn’t seem likely that artificial intelligence (AI) is ready to put a death ray together while I need to repeat myself ten times just to ask Siri to open an email.

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Having said that and despite my cynicism, AI and robotics are advancing at a terrific pace. While my untimely death doesn’t look imminent, there are big changes afoot in the robotics universe. And this is going to have a big impact on jobs.

Deja Vu

Automation causing job losses is hardly new. In fact, it’s all around us already. Five hundred years ago, 98% of the population worked in agriculture. Today it’s 2% and these workers help to feed many more people using tractors and the application of science.

The car industry has seen massive changes with numerous roles replaced by machines. These machines don’t require a salary, they don’t get sick and they don’t turn up late after a heavy night’s drinking. You can see why bosses like them. There are plenty of other examples where computers have replaced humans.

Automation in the car industry didn’t look that promising at first. The dreadful Fiat Strada was launched in 1979 and advertised on TV featuring the fact that it was built by robots. Almost immediately a spoof advert came out showing the car driven down the road with the caption, “Designed by computer, built by robots”, followed by a horrible pile-up entitled “Driven by morons”.

Anyway, I thought it was funny.

Despite this, nowadays the car industry is highly automated with specialist robots taking pride of place on the production lines.

Learning from experience

What has changed recently is that there has been a genuine breakthrough in artificial intelligence, particularly involving “machine learning”. This is where new systems have been put together which have enabled machines to start learning from experience, like humans do, although in a much more restricted way.

Learning has been helped by the vast amount of information which is captured by internet behemoths like Google, Apple and Amazon. These huge amounts of data are fed into new specialist hardware which look for patterns which are neither suggested nor programmed into them.

It was as recently as 2012 that Google fed a huge set of images into one of these new machines. The system wasn’t told anything but it managed to recognise something common across a subset of the images. This turned out to be cats. This might be thought of as trivial, but it was the first time anything like this had been achieved.

There are now a variety of consumer products which have benefited from this new approach, including Alexa from Amazon which is pretty good at recognising speech.

Being able to learn from experience is much more powerful than trying to program rules into a system. After all, it’s the instinctive way that humans learn, although when computers learn this way it is has to be in a narrow field to produce decent results. To provide one example of where progress is being made, since this break-through, self-driving cars have rapidly moved from science fiction to getting close to reality. It’s the developments in machine learning that have made this possible.

Better and cheaper robots have been being developed for several years. However, adding machine learning has the potential to make them much more flexible and intelligent. It really is a game changer.

Robots focused on single tasks

At the risk of repeating myself, the important point to note is that the new generation of robots tend to only be good at one thing. Here are some of the specialist robots that are actually available on the market today: Cyber-weld provides welding robots; Dyson along with Samsung have increasingly capable robot cleaners; Fastbricks Robotics in Australia sells a robot bricklayer called Hadrian which can lay 1,000 bricks per hour.

The range of activities that can be done is only going to increase and we are only at the start of applying this new wave of artificial intelligence to robotics.

Who should be worrying

The good news is that the jobs that look like they might be under threat are very different from those that have previously been automated. The Law Society recently outlined their thoughts in “The Future of Legal Services”. Their view is that “Numerous legal tech companies, universities and law firms are now exploring the extent to which the cognitive domain of lawyers can be automated”.

Surprisingly, in the accounting profession the ACCA have published “Professional Accountants – the future”. This includes an unpopular opinion for the profession in words that say “Smart software and systems will replace manual work (such as bookkeeping) and automate complex and multifaceted processes”.

Across these storied old professions, there are quite a few tasks that are under threat. It’s hard not to be slightly pleased that these fat cat professions are facing the risks that so many industrial workers have had to cope with in the past!

The good news for the trade

The great news is that studies see the trade professions as least likely to be hit by robots. The new generation of robots are good at one thing, but they are very poor at being flexible. The mixture of knowledge, skills and dexterity needed in most trades is well beyond the capabilities of both today’s and tomorrow’s robots.

The saying “no two jobs are the same” sums the situation up. It also shows why the most likely places where robots might be employed is in large scale new builds where there is more consistency and repetition of tasks. That’s where brick-laying robot “Hastings” might find its use. It certainly won’t be climbing onto the roof to re-point the chimney stack or going into awkward cupboards to fit a new boiler.

Robots capable of replacing what most people in the trade do on a day to day basis would need to be hugely flexible. These simply don’t exist today and it looks unlikely they will for a considerable time. The huge variety of knowledge, problem solving and physical skill that epitomises great trade people makes is very hard for a machine to emulate.

What’s next?

The most encouraging thing is that the application of robots in the trade space will most likely be to get rid of some of the most back-breaking parts of the job. Slightly intelligent robots should be able to lift and manoeuvre heavy objects into place. This will actually raise skill levels, with the grunt work being replaced. It’s a hugely better story for the trades than for instance, a cab driver. These people are already seeing a major impact from technology. Uber which allows anyone to call a cab on their mobile and then directs the nearest Uber Cab to them has made “The Knowledge” completely redundant. Things will only get worse as completely self-driving cars arrive on the scene.

There is a new industrial revolution on the horizon and it is likely to have as big an impact as the first one. It won’t eliminate the human race, but it may replace some jobs, while generating new ones. The good news is that for installers it is the most back-breaking and boring jobs that will go and the trade industry overall isn’t going to be badly impacted. If anything robotics and AI will make a career as an installer even better than it is today.

Emma Dyer