If you’re in any career field where your job is at all repetitive, there’s probably a robot coming to take that job from you. There’s been a lot of chatter about how raising the minimum wage might push employers to add robots sooner, which is definitely possible, but the machine workers are coming regardless of how much the human workforce is being paid. Robots are already at work in countries where the minimum wage is a lot lower than in the US.
The advantages of robot workers are more than salary alone. They never need a day off or a schedule, they don’t get sick or need medical insurance, and have only the occasional bad day. Robot workers don’t need supervisors, or the extra pay of shift managers.
Right now the jobs most at risk are repetitious jobs that are more easily automated, like in the fast food industry. Just as the trend toward low-cost connected devices, like smartphones and tablets, first caught on in Japan, the commercial robot industry is also taking root in Asia, where $3,000 robot noodle makers have all but replaced their human counterparts.
Closer to home, the first job of many high school students, working at the local burger joint, may be going the way of the Asian noodle slicer, thanks to companies like Momentum Machines. The company produces a robot that makes burgers with custom blends of meat, and slices toppings to order. The system, which can make exotic blends of pork, ground beef, and ground buffalo, is capable of producing 360 burgers an hour. Momentum Machines claims that, with the savings in labor, vendors can utilize more upscale ingredients.
For more varied food fare comes the Motoman SDA10, which can produce a wide variety of short-order dishes made to order. While you won’t be seeing the blue and white robots popping up in the kitchen window any time soon, the models we’re seeing today are only the vanguard of more sophisticated robot chefs to come.
While the fast food industry is ripe for automation, there are other jobs equally at risk. Any type of fabrication that requires welding is now done almost exclusively by machine, and new robotic welders are coming out all the time from companies like Lincoln Electric. While manufacturing and assembly tasks are most easily automated, newer robotic welders, that can weld pipes and adapt to custom jobs, are in the works.
Not all robots operate completely autonomously. A few still need human operators, with the machine taking over dangerous jobs like wielding a chainsaw. The Sawfish underwater robot was designed to replace human divers, for harvesting the underwater forests created when new hydroelectric dams are built. On land, there are new prototypes for walking harvesters, which still require an operator but handle the job of felling, trimming, and stripping the bark off trees harvested for lumber. The automated systems replace the teams of humans formerly required to do the same job with a single operator.
Even astronauts are not immune from job losses, as many of the more dangerous tasks are taken over by machines with the right stuff to operate in space.
The next generation of robot workers, those coming out in three to five years, will have sophisticated sensors, decision making capability, and the ability to switch tools and adapt to changing environmental conditions. They’ll “learn” new tasks quickly, and will have the ability to be trained for new jobs without being reprogrammed.
Today it’s burger flippers and welders who need to be worried — but tomorrow could see robot automation turning up in places we never imagined, including manufacturing, medicine, security, and customer service. While the future may belong to machines, the people who will be most valuable in the future are the people who can fix those machines when something goes wrong.