By Dean Kamen • Edited by Paul Heney, Editorial Director || Robots are appearing with increased frequency in our world, and it’s easy to see why. Computation has become almost free. The speed at which processes run—and the capability of multi-core, super high speed, super high performance digital signal processing—is such that it’s a small issue. It’s cheap. It’s low power consumption. It’s reliable, and you can just take it as a given. Memory is now gigabytes. In fact, terabytes of memory can fit on a thumb drive. Memory is essentially free.
Yet, it’s not uncommon to hear media types question whether all of these new, smarter robots will “take our jobs”—including within the manufacturing world. But that’s really not a fair question.
It’s like saying, “Will the invention of the bulldozer take over everybody’s job?” If you were a ditch digger, I suppose the invention of the bulldozer would be taking away your job. But there aren’t too many people I know who grow up aspiring to be a ditch digger. It’s literally boring, back-breaking work—and the invention of the bulldozer created a job for a guy that could sit on that bulldozer and do in one day what would take the shovel a year.
Operating the bulldozer makes a person more productive, gives him more satisfaction and is a more pleasant job. It also gives jobs to people that have to design and build bulldozers—and engines—and drives.
Every new technology displaces some job. That’s the whole point of new technology. There’s some job out there that has now reached the bottom of the totem pole of being desirable. People want to do more interesting work, so they find ways to automate the tasks that are now defined as drudgery.
Now, the only difference is that we are no longer talking about the first industrial revolution where machinery was replacing physical labor. For the first time, the machines that we’re now building are replacing a different kind of drudgery: mental drudgery. The problem is, some people have not yet developed the skills to move up the ladder.
It’s pretty straightforward that a guy who had a shovel could relatively easily learn how to drive a bulldozer and be all the better for it. It’s not clear that step can be made today by people who may be replaced by robots or AI. They need to feel comfortable that they can climb the ladder of interesting jobs.
Today’s kids must have the time to learn science, technology, engineering and math to stay ahead of the curve.
The big question is during the transition: Can we make sure that all the people that want to work hard, who need to have a career, can continue to stay ahead of the elimination of those jobs that matched the skill sets that they developed while growing up decades ago? That’s a real challenge. But let’s remember that it’s an exciting challenge—and people who are open to learning new things will certainly benefit from being on this path toward a better future.
Related pieces from Paul Heney