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Tech + EngineeringTech & Engineering

Big Idea of 2014: Our New Robot Economy

ByTim De ChantNOVA NextNOVA Next

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It started with a trickle, but recently robots have begun flooding the workplace. From Amazon’s Kiva robots that zip goods around its warehouses to Botlr, the recently announced robot bellhop that is roving the halls of Aloft Hotel in Cupertino, California, intelligent, automated machines are working alongside humans in more and more varied capacities. In the coming years, they will initiate a cascade of changes that will reshape our economy—for better or worse.

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PR2, an early general purpose robot

A dark undercurrent circulates through most coverage of the future robot economy, but the reality is that automation has the potential to lift workers into a new era of prosperity, too. Getting there, though, won’t be easy.

Late this summer, I met a handful of roboticists in California working on two very different types of robots. One team produced and is refining Botlr, the automated bellhop, while another has worked on robotic surgery suites that promise to make invasive procedures safer and hasten recoveries. Both have the potential to put some people out of work while making others better and more valuable at their jobs. Economists call that substitution and complementarity, respectively, and those two words could come to define our economy in the coming decades.

In an ideal world, everyone would be complemented and not substituted. Achieving that, though, will take a concerted, society-wide effort, according to the economists I interviewed.

People who have been substituted face two options—go back to school to train for a higher-skill job or find a job that hasn’t been substituted by automation. The former tends to serve people better in the long run. “The great human comparative advantage—way, way above any machinery we’ve yet produced—is flexibility, common sense, and making your way around in novel situations,” [MIT economist David] Autor notes. “The thing that enables us to do that is the combination of our intrinsic adaptability complemented by education that gives us analytic skills, formal reasoning skills, problem solving skills, as well as communication skills. In general, we continue to make ourselves very valuable by building on those strengths.”

In other words, the challenge that defines the 21st century may not be the technological advances required to automate the workplace, but rather ensuring that the humans who work alongside robots have the skills they need to be complemented and not substituted.

Photo credit: Tim De Chant