The Humanoid Robots Are Coming
One day, in the future, the likelihood is that your favorite burger joint’s bacon cheeseburger will have been flipped by a robot. I, for one, have always romanticized this idea as being some far-away reality in the distant future. However, based on data from many different sources, it now appears that over the next five years we’ll start to see a drastic impact from the types of jobs robots are able to do and where they’ll replace human labor.
But who really benefits from such a shift? Will the employee at the burger joint, who used to work the grill, be able to take advantage of less work during their shift? Or will they lose their job entirely? Well, this is precisely where it goes from interesting to concerning. Especially as we see an increase in humanoid robot investments (which are designed and constructed to look and behave as human as possible). It’s feasible to imagine one robot flipping burgers while another takes orders in a customer-facing role.
Let's look at some projected numbers. The World Economic Forum predicts that 85 million jobs will be displaced over the next five years due to technology and robotics. This same prediction was also made in 2020, and arguably this impact has not been seen across the labor market, especially when you look at the latest job numbers and see that there are still almost two jobs available for every unemployed person in the US. While a five-year outlook may be somewhat aggressive, over the next 10 years in the United States, it’s predicted that some 46% of job roles will be displaced.
The current outlook and belief are that AI, and more specifically robots, will take jobs from the blue-collar labor market—it will most likely be the warehouse workers, the delivery drivers and the fast-food chain employees who will see their job prospects disappear. The paradigm shift here is that while robots will displace workers in the blue-collar level of the labor market, they will in turn create technical jobs (with a predicted 97 million new tech roles over the same duration). The real question is: can the labor market and the economy handle such a shift? And more importantly, how do we protect the blue-collar workers who will be displaced from losing their livelihoods? Here are some key points to consider:
High Unemployment with High Demands for Labor
Despite a predicted increase in demand for labor as technology continues to scale further, the displacement of labor in the roles that AI and robotics will replace, will not immediately (if ever) fulfill the needs of the 97 million new jobs that will be created. The main reason for this is that the displaced labor won’t have the skills needed to move into the new technical jobs—akin to what we previously saw with manufacturing labor in the Rust Belt. Many of those workers who were displaced, struggled to be redeployed and we are in danger of seeing this repeated on a much larger, national scale. A horrifyingly unique time may be ahead of us with extremely high unemployment, despite a major demand for talent.
What Happens to the Consumer?
This point is probably worthy of an entire article in and of itself, but in the pursuit of automation and efficiency, is there ever reflection on how this will affect consumers (the workers and their families)? We saw what happened to those who were displaced in the Rust Belt and owe it to them and ourselves as a collective to learn from our mistakes and do better this time around. We must make sure that the employees who will be displaced have the skills required to be deployed into new roles. The reality companies need to consider is that the workers who will be displaced are in fact the very consumers they depend on to make sales and be profitable. This means we must also consider how companies replace workers using AI and tech, because if executed too aggressively, the economic impact (not to mention the impact on workers’ lives) could be devastating. I’m all for free markets and am the first to say we should avoid government intervention, but in scenarios like this where the outcome could be so detrimental to so many people, there must be plans in place ahead of time.
Training and Development
There simply will not be enough people to plug the skills gap that will exist from this industrial revolution. The need to upskill and reskill the displaced labor force must be both a political and economic priority. First of all, we know what happened in the Rust Belt and we must protect workers and their families from having that happen again. Secondly, if we want to maintain a healthy economy and avoid major disruptions, then this must be a political and economic priority. Part of the difficulty here is that we don’t know all of the jobs that will be needed as AI and tech continue to develop in the coming years. There will inevitably be new skill sets and new knowledge required, which will be difficult to predict in advance causing training and education programs to struggle to keep pace with the progressing tech.
Humanoid robots represent a major advancement, as well as a major threat to the lion’s share of the labor force. Why make a robot humanoid? Is it to replicate human behavior for jobs that would normally be customer-facing, in service, or in care? This can really be the only reason engineers and scientists have gone to such great lengths to replicate human behavior and interactions. The problem is that this could cause even more displacement of workers in the future.
I am all for progress—if progress means a better future for everyone. We have to remember that technology was created by humans to benefit all of us. We owe it to ourselves as a collective to learn from past mistakes, especially since we already know how devastating the shift to robotics in manufacturing was for the Rust Belt. As it is now, we are set to repeat the same mistakes if we don’t control the rollout and displacement of labor over the next decade. There’s no excuse for this given everything we know now, and we must protect blue-collar workers from another displacement. Let’s do better this time.
The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.