The Age of Automation Is at Hand, Literally

This chart prepared by ECONorthwest shows every corner of Oregon is at risk of job losses resulting from the advance of automation. The spread of robotic applications is advancing faster than educators, workers and policymakers may think, which should prompt serious debate about policies to take advantage of new innovative opportunities and cope with workers and communities left behind

This chart prepared by ECONorthwest shows every corner of Oregon is at risk of job losses resulting from the advance of automation. The spread of robotic applications is advancing faster than educators, workers and policymakers may think, which should prompt serious debate about policies to take advantage of new innovative opportunities and cope with workers and communities left behind

Robots could replace half of Oregon’s workforce by as early as 2030. We could be surrounded by robotic skin much sooner than that.

Automation has represented a job threat for eons, but the fear was largely the stuff of science fiction and obscure graduate student theses. No more. ECONorthwest has produced a study showing jobs in Oregon ranging from flipping burgers to analyzing X-Rays are at risk of automation.

To cope, we may find consolation in draping ourselves with robotic skin developed at Oregon State University that can stretch after we consume a huge Thanksgiving dinner, adjust to fluctuating temperatures and administer our medications. We may be out of work, but we barely have to get out of bed.

The ECONorthwest report was fuel for conversation at the Oregon Business Summit, where the prospect of 50 percent of Oregon workers being displaced deserved to be a topic worthy of serious debate.

image006.png

Few jobs are immune from automation, the report concludes. Manufacturing, retail and food services are the sectors most ripe for a robotic takeover. Males in their prime working years will be hardest hit. No one can be smug as robots will crowd their way into the arts, warehousing, education and management.

Not surprisingly, lower-wage jobs in the food service industry were identified as the most vulnerable to automation. More than 90 percent of the 144,200 jobs in this sector as of 2016 may morph into robots. Your fast food may never be touched by human hands until you eat it.

The real message of the ECONorthwest report:

  • Automation is not fake news;
  • Automation is advancing much faster than we realize; and
  • Policymakers are asleep at the switch.
  • Adjustments are needed in educational training and expectations, innovative companies that still need humans should be nurtured and the social safety net should be strengthened for people washed out of the workplace.
  • Concepts such as universal basic income and health insurance coverage need to move from the political fringes to serious policy consideration.
image005.png

Meanwhile, back in the research lab, researchers are developing “soft robot bodies.” mLabRobotics at Oregon State University is designing “soft-bodied robots with pre-programmed shapes to enable snake-like location and gentle manipulation.” These are robots that can go where their metal cousins can’t.

Researchers think the same techniques can be applied to robotic apparel, giving our skin its own skin. If we no longer elbow-by-joint with metal robots, we will be joined at the hip wearing them.

Fretting over robotics is a lost cause. Robotics are hurdling forward, promising seismic shifts in how and where we work, how medical diagnoses and procedures take place and how we individually adjust to a bulging belly or a winter chill. 

Robots belong in the conversation about making America great again. Attempts to revive the US coal industry tell the story. To the extent more coal is mined, the digging and driving will be largely done by robots, not coal miners. Looking backward is not a viable option.

(For further thoughts on automation, read http://www.cfm-online.com/marketing-pr-blog/2014/7/14/unique-offerings-with-clear-value.html?rq=Automation)