iRobot - you fired. Maybe not

11-04-2017 |   |  By Paul Whytock

Over the past decade humans have managed to churn out millions of words about artificial intelligence (AI) and how it will eventually obsolete the creativity, ingenuity, perceptiveness and determination that are the hallmarks of homo sapien intellect.

Automaton angst, droid despair or robotic rigors, call it what you may, has received huge publicity which taken at its word will mean that within the next fifty years we will all be redundant and labeled as “not required on voyage.”

The thing is it’s just not true. Although for some of us it might be.

Take for example the 34 workers at the Fukoku Mutual Life Insurance Company in Japan. They were replaced by an AI system that can scan hospital records and medical certificates and then process data on injuries and patient medical histories and treatment to determine insurance payouts.

Fukoku Life says the AI system should increase productivity by 30%. Impressive, but here’s the thing. Final insurance payouts by the company will be done by humans.

Then there are those shelf-stacking humans in your local supermarket? A year ago American technology company Simbe Robotics unveiled Tally, a robot that cruises supermarket aisles and makes certain shelves are adequately stocked and properly priced. I certainly know a local food supermarket that could benefit from that sort of droid.

And what about that skill even the great Sir Winston Churchill exercised while enjoying his favorite hobby of building walls at his home, Chartwell? He would be appalled to know an Australian company called Fastbrick Robotics has developed a robot that can lay 1,000 bricks an hour – work that would take two human bricklayers at least a eight hours.

So robots can be more productive, make less mistakes and they don’t take holidays. They don’t mind dangerous work in hazardous conditions and are capable of lifting heavy loads without injury. They never go on strike and they don’t get paid.

So it’s easy to understand why us humans have a propensity for absorbing all this AI angst. And it hasn’t been helped by numerous surveys suggesting robots are superior at many tasks.

A prime example was a report by the World Economic Forum that said robotic automation will result in the loss of five million jobs in developed nations in less than three year’s time!

However, although about 60% of Americans believe robots will inevitably take over most of the work currently done by human beings in the next 50 years, 80% believe their current jobs will continue to exist in some form.

And they may be right in their optimism.

McKinsey and Company management consultants have performed a study 2,000 functions that are carries out in more than 800 jobs and have released some interim results.

They indicate that AI technology could automate 45% of the activities people are paid to perform and about 60% of all occupations could see a third of their activities automated.

So robots certainly don’t get it all their own way when it comes to future employment. Supporting this view are studies that show there are numerous professions that just cannot be handled by a robot.

Here are five of them:

  1. Dentistry. Robots could not handle the patient communication required.
  2. Surgery. There would be too many legal issues.
  3. Teaching. Again the need for communication with pupils is paramount and not in a robot’s skill set.
  4. Psychology. Only humans can hope to understand how weird other humans can be
  5. IT systems analysts. Well somebody has got to make sure the AI droids work properly.

But what about us journalists? Are droids poised to make us hacks redundant?

I took an online quiz that was structured to provide an estimate on just how easy it would be for a robot to do my job. I’m pleased to say that having answered all the questions it showed us journalists are not likely to be replaced by droids.

There’s just one thing however. I cheated on the questions and that’s a concept robots will probably never understand.

“Victoire pour l'homme.”


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By Paul Whytock

Paul Whytock is European Editor for Electropages. He has reported extensively on the electronics industry in Europe, the United States and the Far East for over twenty years. Prior to entering journalism he worked as a design engineer with Ford Motor Company at locations in England, Germany, Holland and Belgium.

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