April 14, 2017      

As more predictions about impact of automation on jobs come out, how can we sort out science fiction from fact? Industry observers expect certain regions, such as East Asia, to accelerate their adoption of robotics, but there will be differences between nations. In addition, artificial intelligence could be a collaborator or an overseer.

Robotics Business Review has partnered with me to bring you a weekly roundup of the top robotics developments. Let’s jump from robots sorting packages in China to millions of jobs said to be at risk and the rising expectations around self-driving cars. Are you ready to be updated?

Asia could lose 50M jobs to robots

As robotics and AI expand in capabilities, 50 million jobs in Asia will be at risk of disappearing over the next 15 to 20 years, according to a UBS report. The financial services firm found that countries that depend on manufacturing, such as China, are at the highest risk.

The impact of automation should be less on services-driven countries, says UBS.

UBS notes that the impact of automation could hit Chinese workers hard.

Countries such as India and Singapore that are “services-driven” will be less affected, UBS said.

UBS isn’t the first organization to unveil dire projections for the impact of automation and jobs, but we should put them in perspective for two reasons. The first is that these companies are making such projections based on their understanding of today’s automation. The technology and industry are rapidly changing and need to be better understood.

Second, saying that economies like India and Singapore will be affected less overlooks innovations within the services sector such as automated call centers or accountants. In other words, these predictions consider only one part of the puzzle.

It is no secret that automation will alter or replace millions of jobs. However, at this point, there is little understanding of which positions or sectors are least at risk, how countries will invest in their workforces, and how nations may regulate or tax automation. All of this means that these projections could be right on target or way, way off the wall.

Getting ready for a future with robots

During a conference in Kolkata, India, the president of London-based Imperial College said that people need to move past seeing robots as tools to execute tasks and instead see them as future “collaborators.”

Alice P. Gast went on to say that this paradigm will require that new graduates are trained for “jobs that don’t exist yet.”

Her comments build upon the concept of “coexistence with robots,” coined by my father, AI strategist Aseem Prakash. His idea is that humanity will need to rethink how we will live and work alongside machines and software. He has spoken extensively online and at events worldwide about strategies for dealing with the impact of automation.

Robotics and AI are evolving from carrying out tasks previously done by humans to becoming equal to us in solving problems. They could surpass humans in identifying new ideas and executing strategies. As such a reality emerges, it’s not just graduates who will need to be retrained, but all of us.

Robots sort 200k packages per day in China

Shen Tong Express Co., a leading delivery company in China, has made headlines after a video went viral showing small, orange robots moving around a factory floor. The robots, developed by Hangzhou Hikvision Digital Technology Co., are being used to sort parcels and move them to the right location. The robots can reportedly sort 200,000 packages a day and have halved worker costs and increased efficiency rising by 30%.

STO Express’ move reflects a growing trend in China. From Shanghai to Shenzhen, Chinese factories are deploying robots to reduce costs, improve efficiency, and decrease errors. However, STO Express is one of the first major Chinese companies to adopt this model and this may set an example. Are enterprises of all sizes in China on the precipice of an automation explosion?

AI will be watching you

Scientists at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., are developing an artificial intelligence system to take surveillance to the next level. They want robots to be able to communicate with one another while tracking objects, people, and more.

For example, instead of humans tracking a person through cameras, robots could do this. And, when observing objects that aren’t familiar, the robots would automatically look them up on the Internet.

Fully automated surveillance has serious implications for privacy rights and geopolitics. Above all else, the impact of automation leads to an ethical dilemma. Should developers have the right to program such robots without any restrictions?

Today, we struggle with how to stop intelligence agencies from overextending their reach. Tomorrow, we could well struggle with how to stop robots from spying on us.

More on the Potential Impact of Automation:

Self-driving cars to account for 25% of miles driven

By 2030, self-driving cars could account for 25% of all “driving miles” in the U.S., according to a study by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG). The main catalysts of this will be pushes by cities to invest in alternative transportation, growth in electric vehicles, and more interest around autonomous technologies.

Impact of automation includes self-driving cars and consumer habits.

Self-driving cars could lead to abandoned strip malls and other economic changes.

Whether or not BCG is accurate in its projections, this study is worth noting if for just one reason. Any significant change in transportation manufacturing and use patterns has consequences for the entire economy.

Just as automobiles have affected investment in passenger rail and the growth of suburbs, so too might autonomous vehicles disrupt retail. Online shopping has already led to sharp declines for shopping malls and “big box” stores.

If self-driving cars make up 25% of all driving miles, strip malls and rest areas could lose their relevance.