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With the recent pushes towards robotic automation in the
work place, as many as 260,000 in American factories, not including the fact
that the US is third behind Japan and China {1}, many have worried that they
will be forced out of employment in favour of a robot replacement. So, how
worried should we actually be? Is a future where all jobs are worked by
‘unthinking’ machines likely? According to 70% of the American public the
answer is ‘very’ {2}, however many argue it is similar to the industrial
revolution in that new and better jobs will emerge for us humans {3}, as well
as that robots will not universally take over jobs, plenty of them are safe and
still needed a human to do it. This essay will highlight both perspectives on
this issue, aiming to use the lens of robots solely in the work place to ensure
the scope of the essay is manageable.

So, just how badly are jobs at risk of being automated? Well
it depends on the nature and type of the job, for example manual work (such as
a coffee shop worker) is much more likely to be automated than a more artistic
job such as an author, simply due to the nature of it. A website called
willrobotstakemyjob.com {4} (made by 2 university students using 2013 data)
presents the chance of a job being automated, and to use the examples from
before, the coffee shop worker has a 96% chance of being automated, while the
author has a much lower chance of 3.8%. So it is very understandable for a
student working part time in a coffee shop to be extremely worried by the
prospect of automation. Although this conclusion is slightly weakened by the date
of the data (4 years out of data at the time of writing) and only applies to
the American job market, it is still a good indicator of the rest of the world.

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Another point raised for why we should be worried is that
robots can, and often do, do jobs better than humans. Robots do not need a
salary, they do not get ill and can work much longer hours than humans, needing
breaks only for maintenance and recharge. So for a job such as welding car
parts together there is literally no reason to hire a human over a robot. One
example that is less clear cut than this is self-driving cars, or in particular
Waymo, Google’s self-driving Cars Company. {5} As of June 2016 the fleet of
cars, completely controlled by the AI, had driven 1,725,911 miles, all without
having to hire and pay people to drive the cars instead. And most importantly,
in that time there have only been 14 collisions, 13 of which was human drivers
fault’s not the AI, meaning there is a high degree of safety as well, a
certainty worrying prospect for any job that involves driving.

But what about the opposite, when robots go wrong?
Highlighted in an article on Thinkgrowth {6} the use of robots could go
dangerously wrong through misuse and accident. Misuse covers what possible bad
could happen if these powerful robots were to fall into the ‘wrong hands’.
(What even classifies as the ‘wrong’ hands is up for debate) Similar to nuclear
weapons, robots are a powerful force for good or bad, and worry for what could
happen on the bad end is both justified and a very real possibility, just look
at dystopian fiction of shady companies controlling the populace with an army
of unthinking robots for the worries of what this automation could turn into.
While this outcome is very unlikely, it is based on human fears and worries for
its source material. Meanwhile the accident part covers, well accidents caused
by humans improperly using the robots, no robot is ever going to be 100% human
proof, and accidents are bound to happen at some point, however with robots
being more and more prevalent and important in daily jobs, the magnitude of
these accidents will continue to rise and get worse and worse, creating a
legitimate cause for concern.

However, another perspective exists on this issue, that this
‘Risk of automation’ isn’t something we should be worried about, and should
actually embrace and welcome. While this perspective doesn’t dispute the fact
that many jobs will be automated, it instead suggests that this won’t translate
into mass unemployment. According to an article by the Guardian {7} it could be
as simple as a smaller working week (the example given is a reduction of 60 to
40 hour working week, however the article points out this is not guaranteed to
happen with the AI revolution) The article points out that the jobs left will
be either jobs humans are better than robots in, yet in 50-100 years this will
likely cease to exist when AI reaches superhuman levels. So really much
employment will come from, as the article puts it ‘those where we prefer humans
to do them’, sure robots could make a painting that looks fantastic but we
would prefer one painted by a human as, as far as we see it, the emotions,
love; loss; happiness etc can only be experienced in the human way by, well, a
human.

But what about when robots could do a job both more
effectively and safely than a human? Like for example in a disaster scenario? An
article by CNN {8} shows how robots have been used in these scenarios to make
detailed maps of the area, or to get into dangerous areas that humans cannot (e.g.:
fire, radiation, flood etc) This is strictly a help, and won’t take over any
jobs in the process, and will save many lives in the process, the article
points out how had these robots been available during the Fukushima disaster many
lives could have been saved. However, this article is less useful for the
perspective as it does not directly relate to the world of work, the view taken,
however sources for that exist, such as the SFPE’s newsletter on the use of
robots in firefighting, {9} which highlights how robots can be used alongside,
not instead of, firefighters to help them do their job better and more safely,
preserving more human life than without these robots.

Speaking of saving human lives, robots are also
helping doctors do their job better and more accurately. In fact, they are
already being used in doctors’ practise right now, highlighted in an article by
Time {10}, detailing how robots are already being used, and learning through a
process called machine learning, or to put it simply, learning by reading
information and applying it, similar to how a human learns. Especially with the
number of articles and studies out on the internet that could be useful for a
doctor’s diagnosis, it is increasingly more useful for a robotic helper to read
and condense vast amounts of info available into a diagnosis and possible
treatment. And even more than that, to quote the article ‘Why should patients
in rural areas who live geographically far from the nation’s leading medical
centres be deprived of all the up-to-date knowledge housed there?’. Yet another
positive of a robotic helper. So, it is increasingly clear due to condensing
vast amounts of information, and allowing more rural areas to access more up to
date information, a robotic helper would only be a plus for doctors, and most
importantly will help, rather than replace them.

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