Sally can make 1,000 different types of salads using 21 ingredients that change depending on what’s seasonally available. She can create a salad in just about a minute and doesn’t require a living wage because, well, she’s not living.
Created by robotics startup Chowbotics, Sally the Salad Robot is destined for popularity as it provides hungry patrons with a wealth of healthy options. Chef Charlie Ayers, the first executive chef at Google, created a number of signature salads that customers can choose to order, but if they are not interested in a pre-planned option, they can customize their meal from the different ingredients offered.
CEO Deepak Sekar hopes to provide quick, healthy meals to busy professionals, at least in part replacing greasy fast food options. Sally’s capabilities will soon be put to the test as Sekar hopes to have 125 of the robots in tech offices in the San Francisco area by the end of 2017.
The Age of Automation
Sally is a testament to the age of automation. It’s sign that, in the very near future, we might be interacting with far more robots and far fewer people. Sally confirms that even the preparation of a chef-curated signature meal can be completed by a machine.
Now, Sally does still need humans to help it operate. The robot gets its ingredients from canisters that need to be loaded and reloaded by hand. But, even though humans are needed to keep the machine up and running, the difference between two humans interacting about a lunch order and the interaction between a human and Sally is monumentally different.
How automation will lead to job loss is a frequently discussed topic, and it is a major issue that we will have to find creative solutions to manage. But less talked about is how we, as humans, will change. If your daily interactions started to feature progressively fewer and fewer people, how might it affect you?
It is the nature of technology to improve over time. As it progresses, technology brings humanity forward with it. Yet, there is a certain fear that surrounds technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics, in part due to how these have been portrayed in science fiction. This fear, however, is mostly a fear of the unknown. For the most part, humankind doesn’t know what will come of the continued improvement of AI systems.
But perhaps the most immediate concern people have with AI and automated systems is the expected job displacement that goes along with these. A number of studies seem to agree that increased automation will cause an employment disruption in the next 10 to 20 years.
Without the risk of being an alarmist, yes there are things to be worried about. But a great deal of this has to do with how we use AI, according to a piece written by ZD Net and TechRepublic UK editor-in-chief Steve Ranger. “AI is a fast-growing and intriguing niche,” Ranger wrote, “but it’s not the answer to every problem.”
Ranger warns of the inability of industries to cope up with AI, which could potentially cause another “AI winter.” He writes: “[A] lack of skilled staff to make the most of the technologies, along with massively inflated expectations, could create a loss of confidence.” Moreover, there’s the danger of looking at AI as the magical solution to everything, neglecting the fact that AI and machine learning algorithms are only as good as the data put into them. Ranger says, “ways must be found to make sure that AI-led decision making becomes as easy to understand — and to challenge — as any other type.” He sees this as the ultimate threat related to AI. He points out that research is being done when it comes to being able to understanding how AI reaches its conclusions. The five basic principals laid out are responsibility (a person must be available to deal with the effects of the AI), explainability (ability to simply explain the decisions made by the AI to the people affected by it), accuracy (sources of error must be kept track of), auditability (third parties should be able to easily review the behavior of the AI), and fairness (AI should not be affected by human bias or discrimination).
Ultimately, the greatest threat to humanity isn’t AI. It’s how we handle AI. “Artificial intelligence and machine learning are not what we need to worry about: rather, it’s failings in human intelligence, and our own ability to learn,” Ranger concludes.
The benefits of AI are undeniable, and we don’t need to wait for 2047 and the singularity to figure out just how much it affects people’s lives. Today’s AI systems shouldn’t be confused with sci-fi’s Skynet and HAL-9000. Much of what we call AI right now are neural networks and machine learning algorithms that work in the background of our most common devices. AI is also found in systems that facilitate trends-based decision making processes in companies and improve customer services.
Education is the cornerstone of society. This is because knowledge is the only thing that lets one be an informed and productive member of society. Of course, education is not limited to just traditional schooling (i.e. a classroom), but includes knowledge gleaned from friends, family, mentors, personal experiences, and on and on.
That said, in our society, traditional schooling is a major part of how we educate the coming generations.
Today, we spend our most formative years in school, learning about the world and how to function in it. In the modern world, which is continually becoming more globalized, it is more important than ever to be able to think critically and analytically about all aspects of our world—from politics, to economics, to the arts, to (of course) science and technology.
A well-rounded liberal arts education can provide this to its students. According to Willard Dix, a college admissions expert and contributor to Forbes, “a liberal arts education provides a multi-faceted view of the world. It enables students to see beyond one perspective, encouraging them to understand others’ even if they don’t agree. It instructs us to base our opinions on reason, not emotion.”
And at a time of increasing polarization, dialogue and understanding are invaluable qualities.
Even disciplines that are thought to be exclusively “fact-based,” such as the STEM fields, can greatly benefit from a liberal arts focus, as critical thinking skills are what allow individuals to analyze and make meaning from new information and move fluidly through society and careers. Case in point, the current president of Miami University, Gregory Crawford, went to school to study physics and now, as an education administrator, he advocates for an educational system that is multifaceted:
There are extraordinary skill sets to learn from the liberal arts, like communication, analytical skills, writing, global awareness. Can you tell a story in a world of data and analytics? When students are exposed to the liberal arts they become more self-aware, more self-disciplined and develop other virtues like empathy and courage.
A liberal arts focus not only can prepare students for the job market, but also life after college in general.
Speaking of the job market, education, in general, is about to become even more of a requirement, thanks to the steady rise of automation. Experts predict that developed countries may lose a staggering 30 percent of jobs in the next 15 years. Much of this job loss, if not all of it, will impact blue collar workers—a study from the National Bureau of Economic Research says that each robot that makes its way into the workforce replaces six humans.
Thus, as the years progress, industries that used to be home to extremely well paying blue collar positions will increasingly become a thing of the past.
However, individuals that have an understanding of a broad spectrum of fields will largely be able to protect themselves from the impact of automation, as they will be able to seamlessly (or more seamlessly) move between industries. This adaptability is precisely what a liberal arts education, at its best, provides. But there is a problem for those pursuing such an education in the United States: Money.
One of the most significant obstacles to an education for young adults today is debt, and a significant portion of that comes from education. Student debt in the United States has hit an unbelievable $1.2 trillion, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. A trillion of those dollars belong to federal student loans. While other nations face affordability issues of their own, the situation in the United States is extreme.
The United States is the fourth most expensive country in which to get a college education, with the average cost being greater than $29,300 each year, according to a list compiled by FairFX. Increases in cost are not showing any signs of slowing, and with figures like that, higher education is no longer just out of reach to the poorest Americans. Now, many mid-level American families also can’t make the cut.
What can be done to ensure everyone will be equipped to thrive in the workforce of the very near future?
In Germany, they answered that question by eliminating tuition costs altogether. The country abolished tuition all the way back in 1971. They were briefly brought back from 2006 – 2014, but they were removed again due to widespread problems, even though the costs only averaged €500 ($630 USD).
In fact, more than 40 countries around the world offer free higher education. Obviously, when people use the word “free” what they really mean is that nations use tax dollars to pay for education in the same way that they use tax dollars to pay for subsidies for corn and fossil fuels and to pay for war efforts (do keep in mind, the United States has a defense budget larger than many developed nations combined).
But now, thanks to a recent development, it looks like the United States is going to start reallocating funds to test the free tuition waters.
Empire State of Mind
Recently, Governor Andrew Cuomo made New York the first state in the country to offer a tuition-free four-year education for residents. Dubbed the Excelsior Scholarship program, it will provide four years of college tuition for families who make less than $100,000 per year. The program will begin this fall, with the income cap raising by $10,000 in 2018 and an additional $15,000 the following year.
The governor said, “Today, college is what high school was—it should always be an option even if you can’t afford it.”
NBC News tells us that this plan will benefit a remarkable 80 percent of the state’s families with college-age kids. The plan also requires that students complete at least 30 credits per year and stay within their program’s minimum GPA requirements. There are also requirements regarding living and working in the state for a certain period after graduation, which will ensure that students give back to the state that is paying for their education. Governor Cuomo explained the importance of this move in his statement:
The Excelsior Scholarship will make college accessible to thousands of working and middle class students and shows the difference that government can make. There is no child who will go to sleep tonight and say, ‘I have great dreams, but I don’t believe I’ll be able to get a college education because my parents can’t afford it.’ With this program, every child will have the opportunity that education provides.
While many families may be overjoyed with the opportunities this will provide their children, other entities were not so keen when the idea was proposed. Some private colleges, including the Governor’s own alma-mater, even went so far as to ask their students to oppose this historic move.
For example, the president of Keuka College, a small liberal arts school in central New York, Jorge L. Díaz-Herrera, sent an email to his students urging them to oppose the program.
While it is understandable that private colleges may fear the future, efforts such as the ones outlined here come off as tone-deaf, at best, or selfish, at worst. Keuka is a school that is well out of the price range of most individuals, costing a staggering 40K a year. And while there are some programs that assist low-income students, the cost is beyond the affordability of most.
Ultimately, such call to action does not seem to fully weigh the (very justifiable) panic of students, which has become endemic in today’s higher education climate. And of course, the letter makes no mention of the “940,000 middle-class families” who will be able to send their children to school as a result of this legislation, many of which may not have had the luxury before its passing.
Since the passing earlier this month, Keuka has released another statement.
It’s too early for any of us in New York’s private colleges and universities to know what this will mean for recruitment and retention at our institutions. But what we do know is that competition is the bedrock of our economic system. To stay competitive, Keuka College must continue to adapt and change.
They may not be celebrating the news, but they have gotten to the heart of the matter: Just as the workforce is going to have to adapt and change with the proliferation of automation, our educational institutions are going to have to change to accommodate that workforce and lead them to be fully capable of thriving in the economy and society of tomorrow.
To remain a global leader, we will need to rethink how we educate and seriously consider the barriers that exist that limit who can benefit. Those conversations need to start now.
Widespread automation has the potential to amplify existing income disparities and produce an unparalleled level of economic inequality. As artificial intelligence (AI) improves and algorithms get more advanced, automated systems can replace more of the workforce, meaning fewer people are needed to generate the same (or greater) amounts of wealth for those at the top. If technology advances far enough, traditional labor may be rendered obsolete.
The advancement of technology has never posed quite such a threat in the past as automation has traditionally created new jobs as it replaced old ones. The Guardian cites the example of bank tellers. ATMs appeared in the 1970s, but there are more human tellers now than back then. Today’s tellers do more than dispense cash, though; they sell financial services and provide advice.
However, the ATM example may not apply as AI improves. If ATMs can dispense cash and advise customers about their mortgage options, too, banks may not need human tellers.
This situation only matters if the ownership of wealth is limited, and at this point in the U.S., it is. Right now, unless you own capital, what you have is your wage. Unfortunately, although productivity has improved since the 1970s, wealth has moved toward ownership and more capital, not wages. Wages and labor are the only source of wealth for most people, and they are also one of the only ways workers can assert themselves in the workplace and advocate for change. If automation renders labor redundant, labor as a source of wealth and power in the workplace will evaporate.
The real issue here isn’t the tech itself — it’s the widening gap between economic classes and the incredible poverty it will cause, not to mention the erasure of the working class. Thankfully, there are several proposed solutions to this potential crisis of equity that don’t require slowing down technological advancement. They include universal basic income (UBI), a tax on robots that replace workers, and job guarantee programs.
UBI has been subjected to heated debate, but many, including Bill Gates and Elon Musk, believe it will be feasible in the near future. Former President Obama has also acknowledged that UBI will need to be seriously discussed within the next 10 to 20 years.
Bill Gates and others have argued that robots that replace human workers should pay taxes — or, more accurately, that their owners should. This would place the existing wage burden back on the wealthy and provide money into the “pool,” which could then be used for UBI or education for workers to take on the new jobs that automation creates. These taxes could also fund job guarantee programs.
Job guarantee programs through the government would guarantee a living wage for anyone doing public sector or non-profit work (depending on the program). This is similar in theory to 1933’s Works Progress Administration program. It also shifts the power away from private owners of wealth, who can demand that workers do whatever menial tasks they want at wages they set, and allows people to do anything from teaching to environmental cleanup for a decent wage.
With the National Bureau of Economic Research reporting that the wealthiest 1 percent of U.S. households held roughly 42 percent of the country’s wealth in 2014, we can’t afford to let automation further widen the gap between the haves and the have nots.
Right now in the United States there is a duel raging on between who or what to scapegoat for the disappearance of certain jobs. One side blames Mexico and China, international trade, and outsiders generally. The other blames artificial intelligence (AI) and automation, the specter of robots stealing jobs. There is evidence that automation is making some jobs obsolete (almost none that points to trade or immigration). However, both positions are overlooking the real issue: the economy is changing in fundamental ways, and there is no way to stop that change.
By 2020, AIs could be powering 85 percent of customer service transactions, rendering them human-free. That could wipe out a career that, in 2015, employed about six percent of the total American workforce (8 million people) with retail sales and cashier jobs. There are 8.7 million people working in trucking in the U.S., and they are staring down the barrel of self-driving vehicles right now. Automation is also likely to replace humans in the food industry by the mid-2020s. Even back in 2013 it was estimated that about 47 percent of the American workforce were at high risk of losing their jobs to automation.
Either we are living in a time which is historically unique for job loss and change, or this is just the next stage in an economic cycle. If the later is the case, then, just as workers moved from agricultural jobs into factories, we are shifting once more. This may sound ominous, but actually, it is good news. It means that there are at least three reasons that automation won’t leave you unemployed.
Trading In D-List Jobs
First, new technologies always usher in new jobs as they eliminate existing positions. Colin Parris, VP of Software Research at GE, explained in an interview with TechCrunch that fighting job losses doesn’t mean resisting automation:
The only way…is to train the talent that we have. Because in the future, we have to embrace robotics. It allows us to reduce cost. If I reduce cost, I have more money that I can use for innovation. The more money I have, the more new products I can create. The more products I create, the more workforce I can hire.
Second, when automation results in job loss, the lost jobs are typically positions that are tough to keep staffed.
“It might take employees out of what we call the ‘three Ds,’ a dull, dirty, or dangerous job,” says Bob Doyle, of the Association for Advancing Automation, to TechCrunch. But “[it] puts them hopefully in a different position that creates more value to the company,” he added. Parris agreed with the “three Ds” position.
There is no question that automation will eliminate some jobs — “D-list” jobs. Automation frees humans from the jobs no one wants do, jobs that are costing us our health and our lives. And while we’re not always adept with cooperation, we’ll need to do better to thrive in our new economy. Instead of petty squabbling over how much unpleasant work we should each have to do, we might instead just agree to pay ourselves for entrepreneurship and volunteer work — fostering more innovation and more new jobs — through universal basic income schemes as necessary.
Third, our economy will almost certainly shift in ways no one can foresee. Economists today warn of the dangers of “job polarization,” the division of human workers into either highly skilled and unskilled classes, with middle-of-the-road jobs lost. However, part of the reason we may not be able to envision a new middle class yet is that we are not yet reeducating ourselves well enough to perceive what the new jobs of the automation era look like.
“We can’t predict what jobs will be created in the future, but it’s always been like that,” says Joel Mokyr, an economic historian at Northwestern University, said in an interview with the Economist. “[The video-game designers and cybersecurity specialists] are jobs that nobody in the past would have predicted.”
The important question isn’t who is “stealing” jobs, because they are gone — or soon will be — never to return. Why should we want dangerous, dirty, and dull jobs back; we can innovate and create new jobs as we have in the past. Now, we must either retrain our workforce to master these economic changes or face the growing gap between educated and non-educated workers. Let’s hope we choose the former.
There’s little question in my mind that advances in artificial intelligence and robotics will significantly displace humans in the workplace.
We’re not talking about every job, but most of today’s jobs (as currently configured) will eventually be performed by AI and robots or in partnership with AI and robots.
In the beginning, the jobs displaced by technology will be those that are dull, dangerous or dirty; eventually, it will include jobs like surgeons, anesthesiologists or diagnosticians.
What jobs will we lose first?
Three that come to mind: Truck drivers, retail, and supermarket workers and cashiers.
In this blog, I’ll write about the future of cashiers…
When I’m shopping at Whole Foods or CVS, my goal is to get in and out of the store as soon as possible: find what I need, pay for it and leave.
As such, I imagine a near-term future in which an AI agent will guide me rapidly to the exact aisle and shelf to help me find the product. Then, as I leave the store, the system will charge me automatically – no need to stop, stand in line and pull out my wallet.
Taking it one step further, imagine a future where I never go to the store in the first place. My refrigerator can sense that I’m low on milk or eggs, order it all from the store, and have those products delivered by autonomous vehicle or drone. In this near-term scenario, all I do is take the products off my front doorstep and stock them in my refrigerator.
High-level autonomy is already underway…
Over the last few months, up in Seattle, Amazon has established a store called Amazon Go, which is a cashierless retail store for Amazon employees only. The reason it’s only for Amazon employees is that they’re doing tests to see how it works.
Currently, Amazon employees access an app, enter the store, and then simply take what they want off the shelf. That’s it. A system of cameras and sensors can observe what you’re taking and how many, and Amazon charges the correct amount to your account. All you do is walk out — no checkout and no cashiers. The tech isn’t perfect yet, which is why Amazon is doing this as a test, but it will get better and it will ultimately become how stores transact purchases.
Will some retail stores only employ humans? Skip the automation? It’s possible, but I doubt it.
Imagine comparing two stores: one that embraces the technology and another that does not.
The store that’s fully autonomous enables you to walk in, get your products, and leave twice as fast — and, by the way, those products are cheaper because the business doesn’t have overhead due to employees.
How will the autonomous store compare to a retail competitor that offers slower and more expensive services?
You got it — the store that employs humans and has a slower, more expensive customer experience will go out of business, and those jobs will ultimately disappear.
For those who are cashiers… when will this happen?
I would imagine it’s probably not in the next couple years, but likely within five years, and definitely within the next decade.
Knowing that, how do you prepare yourself?
Here’s my question: what did you want to do when you were younger? Did you always want to be a cashier, or did you want to be a nurse, teacher or to travel the world?
Ultimately, going back to your early passions and taking on the education needed to achieve your earlier goal(s) is what’s needed. Take caution, though, as those jobs may also get displaced by AI and robots.
We’re heading into a period where technological employment will cause us to struggle — with how we find meaning in our lives, with how we earn our living.
Incredibly important experiments are going on today with Universal Basic Income (UBI), a methodology in which everyone is paid a salary, whether they work or not.
UBI will help ensure we have food on the table, insurance, medical care, and so on, but it’s not going to solve the issue of giving meaning to our life.
This is something we need to think about and solve — not in 20 years or 10 years, but in the next five years.
As automation continually becomes a larger threat to human jobs, Canada is taking action. Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, recently made public statements about the country’s plans for dealing with these rising trends. Instead of ignoring the issue, or pretending like it’s something we won’t have to deal with for a long time, Canada has formed a comprehensive strategy.
We know that the job market is changing, and instead of resisting in vain, we’re focused on funding research and innovation, like in AI and quantum computing, that’ll help lead the change here in Canada. And while we do that, we’re preparing Canadians to find good jobs through investments in education and training.
This plan is important to take note of, because job loss due to automation has already begun to take effect. And, while the White House has released similar intentions to focus on research and education, programs will need to be incorporated and explored much sooner than most people assume.
In fact, just within the next 15 years, we are expected to lose up to 30% of jobs to automation in the U.S. alone. And, while many may scoff with ambivalence in assuming that the jobs lost will be only low-paying jobs in customer service, IT, or in factories, they are absolutely wrong. Just this past year, artificially intelligent (AI) lawyers became less of a novelty and more of a reality. There are virtually (pun intended) no jobs that exist that would not be threatened by growing automation.
The Future of The Middle Class
What many fear is that, as automation replaces more and more jobs, the middle class will disappear. Even Stephen Hawking thinks that this is a real and dangerous possibility. This future is possible if we do not plan effectively for the progression of automation. Without a quality strategy in place, jobs will only exist for the ultra-privileged. Manufacturing jobs are already feeling the burn of automation-caused job loss, and this trend will continue through many other job fields.
And so, as Trudeau has asserted about Canada, investing in education and research will “create jobs and grow the middle class.” This plan will support additional job training, education, and even post-secondary education for all citizens. In fact, to support unemployed citizens, Trudeau writes that Canada’s 2017 budget aims “to provide $132.4 million over four years, beginning next year, and $37.9 million per year thereafter, to allow unemployed Canadians to pursue self-funded training while receiving Employment Insurance benefits.”
The Canadian government additionally plans “to invest in 13,000 work-integrated learning placements for students to help young Canadians transition from school to work.” It seems as though Canada has every intention to fully support its citizens from the beginning of their careers up through all levels of employment. And, while there will still be difficulties as automation makes more and more jobs obsolete, supporting education will undoubtedly improve the situation. Education leads to innovation, which leads to job creation. It’s simple, but undeniably effective.
At the moment, RightHand Robotics, a startup building helpful robotic arms, is doing its part to shake up the manufacturing industry. The company’s founders, Yaro Tenzer and Leif Jentoft, have developed several prototypes that can differentiate between different items and categorize them into individual bins.
Using a set of fingers with a suction cup at their center, the RightHand system can grab objects detected by the camera embedded in its hand. It can then place the objects where it believes they should go.
Notably, these machines can learn on their own over time through practice. While this ability seems like second nature to us, it is a particularly challenging feat for a machine, but RightHand Robotics has accomplished it with its flagship product. What’s even more fascinating is that each bot can share what it learns with the others.
A Million Workers, One Mind
These pseudo-sentient arms connect to a hive mind. Each robot can communicate with the others through a cloud server, sharing what it has learned with its robot brethren. This multifaceted system has earned the company praise from the likes of Ken Goldberg, a professor at UC Berkeley and an expert on robot development. “This is a clever mechanism,” he told MIT Technology Review. “These guys are smart.” Clearly, investors agree as RightHand has received $8 million in funding.
While RightHand Robotics’ technology isn’t at the level needed to replace human workers just yet, the company’s prototype showcases its potential to eventually handle fulfillment for pharmaceuticals, electronics, groceries, and apparel. Their hive mind connection will only serve to increase the rate at which these robots get up to speed with their human counterparts. The automated future is just around the corner.
SAM can work about 500 percent faster than humans, and discrepancy in labor cost that causes is significant. According to a report by Zero Hedge, 3,000 bricks boils down to a cost of 4.5 cents per brick. Based on a $15 per hour minimum wage rate and benefits, a human bricklayer with an average efficiency of about 500 bricks will cost construction firms about 32 cents per brick — that’s more than 7x the cost of an automated bricklayer.
SAM isn’t able to work independently, however. A builder still has to feed the bricks onto its conveyor belt, which will then be picked up by SAM’s robotic arm, slathered with mortar, and placed on the wall. From there, another bricklayer has to follow up SAM’s work by cleaning up excess mortar.
This kind of efficiency is emerging amid rising demand for construction services, which means it’s likely only a matter of time before the of technology will undergo mass adoption among construction companies.
Across the U.S., SAM has already been deployed in several construction sites. Now, Construction Robotics has announced its entry into the U.K. market later this year as it finalizes negotiations with various construction companies.
Not surprisingly, Since automation would likely lead to the displacement of numerous employees in the construction workforce, movement in that direction has been been met with a lot of resistance. Many in the field point out the complexity of other aspects of the construction process, which robots are currently not capable of handling. While this could limit the impact of automation on construction workers, it would not eliminate it. SAM is one example of why some experts are calling for nations to begin developing systems that will ensure our society can still function in a world where jobs will become less available to humans.