Should We Fight or Embrace the Robot Invasion?

A daily stream of headlines fill my inbox, describing technology advancements as a growing number of researchers, economic developers, and political candidates are discussing the future of work and our new robot coworkers. We’ve reached a tipping point in the understanding of how robots and artificial intelligence are impacting and will impact our lives.

This summer, FedEx will demo their same day delivery robots in Memphis, TN. What may be news to many is that this is not the first autonomous delivery demo, as several other communities are already hosting demos delivering everything from pizza to toilet paper.

Our friends at the Brookings Institution have noted a few compelling facts to consider:

  • “Almost no occupation will be unaffected by the adoption of currently available technologies.
  • Approximately 25 percent of U.S. employment (36 million jobs in 2016) will face high exposure to automation in the coming decades (with greater than 70 percent of current task content at risk of substitution).
  • At the same time, some 36 percent of U.S. employment (52 million jobs in 2016) will experience medium exposure to automation by 2030, while another 39 percent (57 million jobs) will experience low exposure.”

The Fourth Economy team is working with a number of communities to more directly assess the impending impacts and in some cases we have noted that the Brookings estimates are very conservative. The question is, will the businesses in these communities embrace the transformation or be forced to when the economics of legacy systems become unsustainable?

In less urban and smaller communities the economic development and political leadership must start helping their employers transition through the integration of new technology. From training to retooling, companies including manufacturing, logistics, service industries, and really anywhere there is repetition of tasks should be ready for the transformation. Progressive firms will transition, while those slower to respond will be disrupted. This could mean countless jobs lost in communities that need them most.

Some are fighting against the robot invasion, hoping to slow the inevitable progression of the use of technology to improve the economics of business. In doing so, they are putting their communities at risk of the negative impacts that will be experienced from lack of investment to a lack of interest by talent and companies looking to be hosted in a more advanced community. Local leaders must also consider the governance systems impact in their communities. How fast can an autonomous delivery robot travel while on our sidewalks? Does our community’s broadband infrastructure support connectivity? What if someone purposely damages a robot delivery vehicle – do our criminal codes cover this? There is work to be done in figuring out how to manage the future impacts.

You can fight the robot invasion or you can embrace it and plan accordingly. What you can not do is say that you didn’t see it coming. The future of work is being implemented now and I welcome it for these three reasons:

  • Robots and AI will continue to make life better and safer.A primary benefit from the adoption of robotic technology will be the reduction of repetitive tasks, many of which are dangerous and will allow workers to add value rather than burn time. In industries where indoor air quality issues or other environmental impacts are felt by employees, robot technology can take on tasks. For example the auto industry uses robotic arm paint sprayers to coat vehicle versus a small furniture manufacturer employee using a hand sprayer to coat a finishing on a new table.
  • Robots are the bridge to economies of scale. Communities are struggling to find cost effective ways to evolve legacy transit systems to the new realities of where the jobs are verses where people live. Optimized autonomous vehicle networks will be able to lower the cost of the home-work commute and reduce overhead to balance out the cost issues associated with lower density and fewer trips. In addition, autonomous and drone robotic delivery of purchases, including fresh food, medicine and more, can expand the access for both rural and disconnected urban communities.
  • Labor force shortages will drive more investment and quicken the pace of technology adoption. This is where some communities will see great benefits as their companies invest, increase productivity and reap the benefits of their new labor force. We need to plan and training for a transitional labor force rather than waiting for the disruption. Living in Pittsburgh, I hope we all have learned from the previous technology revolutions and be more proactive and progressive in how we approach the advance of this one.

We are at a time where we have a vast amount of information and resources to see what the near term future holds and dream about what is beyond that horizon. We should use the clarity we now have to embrace the transition of our economy, communities and our jobs. I am hopeful that we can use this time to make sure the negative impacts are minimized and we define new opportunities for all to benefit.

Thoughts? Drop us a line… engage@fourtheconomy.com.