Will You Lose Your Job to a Robot?

Martin Smith, Professor of Robotics at Middlesex University and an expert in the field of cybernetics, discusses how robots will shape our society in the future.

Will You Lose Your Job to a Robot?

The jobs most at risk to robots are low skill, routine, highly structured, simple, and rule based, in environments that are static (unchanging) and structured (e.g. on fixed known routes). These fields are described as the three Ds: that is, tasks that are dirty, dangerous or dull.

Robots are usually thought of as being mobile but they don’t have to be.

Robots are usually thought of as being mobile but they don’t have to be.

For example, chess is easy for a robot because the operating environment, the chess board, is very simple and the rules are few and easily defined. Whereas ironing and making beds is hard for a robot because of the unlimited combination of shapes, sizes, appearance, and positions of clothes, sheets and blankets. Even walking and avoiding obstacles is hard for present day robots.

The relatively high initial cost of robots means that they tend to be used only by large companies or in defence.

Robots are applied in fields that are described as the three Ds: that is, dirty, dangerous or dull

It is unlikely that all the humans will be replaced by robots in every task, it is much more likely that fewer people will be needed because for many years robots will be assistants. The future is most likely to be one of productivity gains rather than mass redundancies.

Robots are usually thought of as being mobile but they don’t have to be. Washing machines, dishwashers and tumble driers can also be thought of as robots, particularly the more sophisticated ones that are fitted with microprocessor “brains”, and several sensors and actuators.

The Jobs That We May See Machines Taking Over First

  1. Train Drivers
    Train Drivers

    Train drivers are vulnerable as they only need to follow a small number of instructions and the applicable robot technology has been available for many years. The Docklands Light Railway is largely unmanned and has been a great success.

    All that is needed is the political will and the start-up cost for the initial investment and we could see more cybernetic (computer controlled) trains in five years, but ten years is more likely.

  2. Taxi and Goods Vehicle Driver
    Taxi and Goods Vehicle Driver

    In the 2004 driverless car grand challenge all the cars failed to complete the course. By 2014 Google's self-driving car travelled 100,000 miles on real roads without a crash. This is an amazing rate of progress.

    Processing the signals from video cameras and laser rangefinders at speed in very variable and rapidly changing environments and situations is the technical hurdle to overcome. There are health and safety, and legal hurdles to overcome too, and the costs of overcoming them will be significant, while the cost of the sensors, the computers and software is also currently high. We may see self-driving vehicles on relatively deserted roads in ten to twenty years' time.

  3. Space Exploration
    Space Exploration

    Robots have already overtaken humans in this field. This is because of the danger, the weight of a person and their life support system, and the need for a human to be returned safely to Earth. It is highly unlikely that humans will ever be used for space exploration beyond the moon.

  4. Cleaners

    Robot floor cleaners have been popular in the home for a few years. Robot lawn mowers have sold in their thousands. It is likely that costs will get lower and performance will increase with continuing evolution and development.

    Larger scale robotic commercial floor cleaners are in current use in airport and railway terminal concourses and as these improve and acquire a good track record they will be used more widely.

  5. Teachers and Lecturers
    Teachers and Lecturers

    The use and quality of computers, television, the internet and computer graphics in education is consistently increase.

    The Open University has used television and self-teaching texts very successfully. Experiments with teaching machines have also been successful. American universities are teaching courses at BSc and MSc level for students who are not only off campus but not even in the same country.

    A colleague of mine and I developed a trio of identical humanoid robots that go into primary schools to teach children the merits of recycling, reusing and reducing waste. The robots (which are partly programmed and partly human controlled) are very effective at teaching the children the value of environmentally sustainable lifestyles. The robots have performed in front of over a million children in the UK.

  6. Lab Technicians and Scientists
    Lab Technicians and Scientists

    Research and development, particularly in biology, often requires tiny, precisely measured volumes of liquid to be added to test tubes, dozens at a time. The enormous task of decoding the human genome was carried out largely by computers and robots.

  7. Pharmacists and Nurses
    Pharmacists and Nurses

    Robot pharmacists already exist in the UK. The robots pick the right packet of drugs from a huge number of pigeon holes and pass them via a conveyer belt to a pharmacist for checking before handing on to the patient. Thus a busy pharmacy can be run by one pharmacist and a robot.

    Robot "nurses" have been used in the USA for years, partly because the wages of nurses there are sufficiently high to make robots economic. These robots carry patient meals, notes and mail, distribute bed linen, carry waste, drugs and dressings.

  8. Security Guards
    Security Guards

    Patrolling warehouses, factories and offices can be dull and dangerous. Such environments are usually structured, for example there may be set routes along corridors. They are also generally static, that is, without people moving around in front of the robot. Such environments are relatively simple for robots to navigate.

  9. Airline Pilots
    Airline Pilots

    Passenger aircraft are now so safe, structurally, mechanically, electronically and in computer control, that we are approaching the point where most aircraft accidents are due to human error.

    We are at the point where aircraft should be robots or rather computer controlled, that is they could be allowed to take off, fly, and land by themselves. However most passengers would not accept this and would still like the idea of humans in overall control whatever the accident statistics imply.

    Airline pilots are likely to be increasingly side-lined and just taking over manual control in situations for which the computer has not been programmed. In perhaps ten to twenty years the pilot will probably still be on board but the computer will be in overall control and able to override the pilot rather than vice versa.