Author: Content Team Blog Posting
Thursday 23rd September 2021 09:45 AM
Humans in the Workforce, the Next Replaceable Commodity?
In the modern day and age, we are becoming more and more tech dependent. There are smart cars, smart fridges, smart watches, and smart homes that shape the way people live their daily lives. Nowadays, it is almost unheard of to know someone who doesn’t own a smartphone. Who doesn’t? Our gadgets can predict the weather, make phone calls hands-free, and even order food at the swipe of a button, which were features hailed as ‘futuristic’ back in the 2000s.
But how advanced can technology really get?
Quite a lot, actually. Enough to take over some jobs, for sure.
Does the thought of robots taking over the workforce scare you? For some, it signifies the end of human-only labour, a job economy apocalypse, where everyone needs to always have a chip in their back at all times. Be part of the newest industrial revolution.
There is a slim hope that not all jobs can be replaced by AI. But which jobs can be?
Construction work is found among most developing countries. Churning noise and dust, one is almost certain to see groups of workers in bright vests loading trucks, carrying rebar, and laying bricks. As machines become more precise with the latest computer processors chugging along at speeds unthinkable in the 2000s, it is almost certain that an industry as widespread and necessary as this would be primarily replaced by machines. As of 2015, a brick-laying robot can effortlessly build a house in two days.
Work like this requires consistent, constant results, yet carries some degree of risk. There have been at least 61,000 injuries to construction workers each year, according to a statistical analysis by the UK, with an estimated 81,000 ill health cases that were either directly or indirectly caused by the intensity of construction work. One can only imagine the lives and costs it would save for a machine to reach the highwires that humans would take days to attempt.
When was the last time there was a cashier at McDonald’s? Just about every branch of the mega fast food chain will have some sort of automated kiosk, where consumers are trained to order on their own, pay cashless (or at a single cashier, rather than three), and collect their food at the counter. Some branches have also redesigned their main lobbies to cater to automated kiosks, removing cashier counters and implementing a fully cashless experience. This is especially beneficial during the pandemic, where social distancing has become the norm.
In some sushi bars, the presence of a cashier is eliminated altogether, replaced with automated trolleys that meander along the conveyor belts next to your table, deliver the meal to you, chirp a cheerful farewell, and return to the kitchen for further instructions. Simple, cute, and effective. Genki Sushi states that their model-train waiters can serve up to 158 patrons with their handy app, all without the inconvenience of human interaction. It’s almost mesmerising, in a sense, to watch sushi whoosh along conveyor belt train tracks to tables.
Furthermore, in places such as America, where waiters largely depend on tips to pay bills, robotic waiters eliminate the need for extra cost while eating out. Restaurant owners can also remove the cost of monthly wages and benefits from their expenses, opting for a one time investment and periodic maintenance of a sleek, precise train.
The folly of humankind
There is no easy way to note the inefficiencies of human labour without stepping on some toes. Every individual is unique, and it would be unfair to pigeonhole every employee into work efficiency ranks.
Take delivery work, for example. In the old days, it was commonplace to think about two to three week long waits, shipping costs, and fragile packages being tossed in the back of a van. We wanted packages to arrive faster, with guaranteed protection, authenticity, and a refund policy.
Enter Amazon Prime. Or, more specifically, Amazon Prime drones.
Amazon Prime Air is a near-future delivery system, designed to deliver packages to consumers in thirty minutes or less. Carrying packages up to five pounds, and navigated from warehouses using GPS, the first beta tested drones successfully delivered a package to a man in Cambridgeshire, England. Being a pioneer of non-human delivery, and one of the biggest online retail stores in the world, one can only wonder just how long it would take for stores such as eBay, Shopee, AliBaba, or Lazada to take the initiative themselves.
Non-human deliveries are already predicted to sport multiple advantages, such as lesser cost for the consumer, removal of human error during the processing and delivery phase, and delivering items much faster— by eliminating the process of loading a truck up to a full load before sending it off to shipping, unreal delivery times, such as the thirty minute package, can become a reality.
Imagine your next pizza, ordered through the phone, and received from a drone in the sky half an hour later. A tale to tell your grandchildren, for sure.
Is all hope lost for human labour?
Robots may be able to do a lot, but they do possess their limitations. Creativity, imagination, innovation, empathy, the raw human emotion simply cannot be encapsulated by machine and binary data. This keeps some jobs secure from the all-reaching grasp of AI: artists, teachers, athletes, leaders. Judges require subjective knowledge and opinion of the situation at hand, and understanding of how to flexibly apply the complex laws of the legal system. CEOs and managers have to motivate teams of people, representing a company’s aims and values. With a skill as subjective and interpersonal as leadership, it is almost impossible to teach this skill to machines.
It may also take a long time for society to transition to accepting machinery as the new workforce. Self-driving cars, such as the infamous Tesla, are a pinnacle of human invention, with advanced sensors and systems designed to protect both drivers and pedestrians. However, almost 75% of Americans still distrust self-automated cars, with 48% stating they would never enter a taxi that was self-driving. This bodes good news for taxi and ride-sharing drivers that worry bout their job security.
It would also be hard for drivers to predict and know when a self-driving car is going to move on the road. Simple turns or pauses, deemed necessary by the machine, may cause confusion in nearby drivers, leading to unfortunate accidents. One particular game that comes to mind would be Neo Cab, a narrative game that dictates the life of the last human driver-for-hire on Earth, and the challenges she faces with her main competitors being automated machines.
If the time comes for AI to take over the workforce, it would only be possible through the change in which the public perceives AI as a whole.
What AI can, should, and has been doing, is complementing jobs.
In the medical field, AI has assisted medical professionals in areas such as radiological image analysis, predictive disease analytics, workflow optimization, and much more. Just last year, there was a COVID-19 Screener put in place at Partners HealthCare, Boston, to meet the exceeding demands of citizens that were worried about their health conditions. Repetitive questions that overwhelmed hotlines and brought waiting times to over thirty minutes was easily remedied with a straightforward chat interface, bringing care and comfort to distressed would-be patients.
Surgeons and doctors, armed with medical degrees and years of expertise, provide a uniquely human connection to their patients, and this is also true for specialists in the medical force, like occupational therapists, whose interaction and human attention for the disabled is a defining factor for their patients’ wellbeing. AI simply can’t replicate the same warmth that a human’s interaction can provide.
Robots will never replace most jobs that require soft skills. Rational thinking, common sense, organizational skills, flexibility, these are all skills that make every human being uniquely human. Despite the advantages that robotic assistance can provide us, people just innately trust humans over machines. We decide that decision making, complex reasoning, and judgement lies on the shoulders of a human mind, and that will stay the same for a long, long time to come.
Until then, I hope that I’ll still be able to order from a mamak without a robot waiter.