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The Future Of Human Labor In A Robotic World


smart robot

By Robert Tercek, author of “Vaporized: Solid Strategies for Success in a Dematerialized World

Robots are coming to steal our jobs. We know this because one news outlet after another has told us so. As robots and software-driven automated systems take a larger role in our digital and physical lives, the argument goes, they will displace more and more workers. Robots and artificial intelligence (AI) are vaporizing human labor.

Robots are everywhere, especially if we look beyond the humanoid clichés to recognize a robot for what it is: automation. Mechanized robots were initially a replacement for muscle power; they perform the physical work that would have been done by human beings or animals. Now, robots can handle pattern-detection jobs, like pulling weeds in a field of crops. Sorting, stacking, and moving barcoded items for transport is a robot-ready task.

Thanks to rapid advances in technology, the machines are smarter than ever. Today robots perform their work silently in every corner of the urban landscape: as automated teller machines at the bank, self-service check-in counters at the airport, self-service checkout stations at the grocery store, pay-at-the-pump machines at the gas station, and automated payment machines at parking lots and tollbooths.

As they gain dexterity, limbs, and more intelligence and situational awareness, robots look less like stationary kiosks and more like the humanoids we recall from cheesy 1950s science fiction movies. Lowe’s hardware stores are experimenting with robot greeters who guide customers to the correct aisle in the store. And Rethink Robotics is selling Baxter, a $22,000 robot with a friendly face, suitable for small businesses and light manufacturing. Add a dash of personality and these anthropomorphic machines are capable of dealing directly with people.

Should we worry about this?

So, should human workers be concerned? Yes and no. Robots are going places that humans can’t or don’t want to go, including hot war zones, toxic waste dumps, and the stars above us. The US Navy has developed a robot drone that swims like a shark for underwater reconnaissance and may be phasing out manned aircraft in favor of drones.

At the same time, artificial intelligence (AI), is allowing computers to do more tasks that were previously the domain of human intelligence. Some jobs that require mastery of a defined body of knowledge, such as law, accounting, journalism, and medicine, can now be partially handled by software robots.

Once a unit of robot labor grows cheaper than a unit of human labor, additional benefits for employers kick in: for many tasks it is safer, more efficient, and more reliable to use a machine than a human being. Furthermore, companies have a huge financial incentive to find ways to eliminate human employees and thereby reduce such associated costs as payroll taxes, disability payments, insurance costs, fringe benefits, plant costs, training expenses, and worker safety claims.

The future of companies is lean and leaner. Until 1990, layoffs generally occurred at one company at a time. When a worker was laid off, he or she could find a similar job at a plant across the street or on the other side of town, or wait six months and then get rehired when the economy recovered. Today, entire job categories are being permanently erased by robotics.

It won’t happen overnight.

Mass displacement of labor won’t happen overnight. It will occur gradually, but it may well remain a persistent feature of the economic landscape for decades as the old industrial economy is redefined by software.

Automated workforces will yield windfall profits for employers. Investment in robots will bring great returns to investors, some of which will be channelled towards new businesses, which may help some people find new careers in start-up ventures funded by the profit from demolishing old jobs.

The upside: new jobs and career categories.

Human ingenuity will devise new ways to work with and around the robots. Artificial intelligence and robotics will make many products cheaper and more ubiquitous, which will paradoxically drive up the perceived value of handmade objects by humans. Entirely new job categories will be devised by humans to serve entirely new categories of wants and needs. These might include a resurgence of handmade craft goods untouched by robot hands, live performances by human/robot hybrid troupes, new forms of education and personal care, and unique experiences such as human-guided adventures, and thousands of other new services that we can’t yet imagine.

Don’t worry. There will still be jobs for humans in the future. The jobs that remain will be jobs that robots cannot do easily, including jobs that involve manual dexterity, good estimates and snap judgments in unpredictable circumstances, custom solutions to unusual problems, and novel approaches and invention. For example:

  • Computer Programmer
  • Art Director
  • Game Designer
  • Data Analyst
  • Instructor
  • Project Manager
  • Systems Engineer
  • Elder Care Specialist
  • Laboratory Technician
  • Occupational Therapist
  • Financial Analyst
  • Supervisor of Customer Support
  • Mobile App Software Architect
  • Compliance Officer
  • Robotics Software Engineer
  • Information Security Analyst
  • Network Administrator

Almost every one of these jobs will rely on computers and automation in one way or another. Whether you are an employer or an employee, your greatest skill in the future could be how well you get along with robots.


robert tercek

Robert Tercek is the author of “Vaporized: Solid Strategies for Success in a Dematerialized World“. He has launched satellite TV networks, the first video on mobile phones, multimedia games, and live interactive learning programs. He provides strategic insight to Turner Broadcasting, InterPublic Group, PBS, and other firms. He previously served in executive leadership at MTV, Sony Pictures Entertainment, and most recently as President of Digital Media at OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network.