June 2, 2023

Artificial intelligence and robotics predicted to hit workers hard

Manager of Mechanical Technologies Gary George standing in front of plasma cutters in the welding lab. Photo by Amaris Rodriguez

While the discussion of robotics and artificial intelligence conjures up images of menacing cyborgs erasing humanity, the reality is far from it — for now, at least.

“[The future] is eliminating human beings from the workforce,” Manager of Mechanical Technologies Gary George said. “That’s where I see things heading, eliminating the mundane jobs.”

Human imperfection makes mundane jobs a perfect spot for robots to step in. An example is the printing press or a production line for filling bottles.

Where a human would have to scan for mistakes, programmable technology can shut down the line and notify humans when a bottle is mislabeled, a cap is not applied correctly, ink runs out, etc.—limiting (or preventing) time and product waste.

“[You see it] on the production floor,” professor of Electromechanical Technology Robert Wolff said. “I worry a little bit with the pandemic and that people don’t want to go back to work. I think it’s going to accelerate [robots taking human positions] even more.”

“Most of the companies in the Lehigh Valley that employ our students already have [robots],” George said.

While firms with robots become more profitable and produce more efficiently, MIT professor Daron Acemoglu says effects like reduction in labor demand and job destruction must be taken into account as well.

A study conducted by MIT Sloan School of Management found that adding one robot to a “geographic area” reduced human employment by six workers. To date, 400,000 jobs have been lost to robots.

Programmable Logic Controller (PLC) lab. Photo by Amaris Rodriguez

Despite the worry of worker displacement, the future of AI, automation and robotics should not be entirely unwelcome.

“There are a lot of positive sides to it as well,” Wolff said, citing robotics taking over dangerous jobs such as bomb defusal.

Advances in these sectors do not spell the end to human employment as someone needs to program and calibrate the machines.

“Someone’s going to have to repair and maintain all that automation stuff, it’s not going to fix itself,” Wolff said. “That’s going to change, maybe not in our lifetime, but at some point, it will be robots fixing robots. … But for right now, they don’t have that dexterity.”

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