Ready to be replaced?

Senior vice president, TTI Americas, Michael Knight

Robots in manufacturing are nothing new, but are we ready for the tsunami of automation set to replace humans in all kinds of service oriented businesses, asks senior vice president, TTI Americas, Michael Knight.

Looking at the factors driving demand for electronic components in the future it’s clear that automation has a key role to play. Of course, robots in manufacturing are nothing new. Nor are robots in service industries, such as ATM machines that do the work of bank tellers, or kiosks that do the work of airline ticket counter staff. What is now in discussion is the accelerated deployment of automation that displaces human workers in all kinds of people-intensive, service oriented businesses.

Self-drive vehicles
Self-driving cars, for example, are popular, with big auto companies already firmly committed to the concept. App-based companies, like Uber and Lyft, also see the technology as a way to change their business model, removing the half million-plus people who currently drive for them.

Autonomous flying cars are also racing to market. Right now, a trial is running in Dubai of an autonomous flying taxi service using vehicles manufactured by a Chinese company. Both forms of vehicle, however, need to accumulate enough safety data to re-write the rules, regulations, standards and laws that are necessary to integrate these people-moving-robots into the public space. Today, only California, Michigan and Florida have proposals in motion to legalize the use of fully driverless vehicles for passenger transport.

Increased unemployment
Alongside cars, there is also an effort to bring autonomous trucks to our roads, so chances are we’ll also have self-driving long-haul and delivery trucks at some point. Crucially, the unemployment ramifications of self-driving vehicles are staggering. For example, there are more than 3.5 million people in the US who drive a truck of some sort for a living, according to the American Trucker Association. There is also an infrastructure of businesses to support that industry such as truck stops, which employ an estimated additional 5.2 million people. Beyond truckers, there are millions of people driving vehicles such as shuttle buses and ambulances, each with infrastructure businesses behind them, all of whom face the same future.

The auto insurance business is another area that could be affected. One of the core promises of self-driving vehicles is that they are inherently safer than human driven vehicles. They are immune to the four major causes of accidents – distraction, drowsiness, drunkenness and driver error, in which case insurance may no longer be required. Even if there remains some need for it, the cost is certain to be a fraction of what it is today. In the US, this will be very disruptive for the $150 billion plus insurance industry.

Lifelike robots
In addition to robots with wheels and wings, robots with legs and arms are also in development. Lifelike robots have captured our collective imagination and tapped into a deep societal desire. Google for one has been investing heavily in companies that are developing self-learning and self-replicating robots for use in manufacturing, and in companies that build robots that lift, walk, run and even jump like humans. In Japan, there are many examples of companies investing in humanoid robots that are designed to take care of an aging population.

That’s because robots that look like, and move like, humans are intended to do one thing – take on the work that historically only human beings, with their wide range-of-motion and manually dexterous hands, could do. The early versions of these ‘helpers’ are already among us, vacuuming floors and cutting grass, but it won’t be long before human-shaped machines will be among us as well.

Advances in ultra-low power, superfast semiconductors, light weight, high-energy density batteries, haptic sensors, skin-like materials, and artificial intelligence will evolve these machines to the point where we refer to them as ‘creatures.’ In fact, discussions about robots’ rights have already begun, as have discussions about what happens to our culture and economy if tens of millions of us lose our jobs to robots in a relatively brief time.

Speed of change
In prior industrialization cycles, we’ve had time to redeploy people into the new jobs needed to build, maintain and operate automation technology. This time, however, the time-span will be compressed by rapid development and the related job creation is likely to be smaller, as much of the technology is designed to be self-maintaining, and even self-replicating. The threat to widespread employment is therefore greater and more pervasive than in past cycles.

In the end, a couple of things are likely to slow down this big wave that is building. One, is the simple fact that innovative technologies historically mainstream at a slower rate than any of those involved in their development, or those who will benefit from their capabilities, expect.

Another source of drag is the fact companies invest in automation to improve their productivity, and in so doing eliminate jobs for people. Those jobs are the source of money which people spend on the products and services that these companies produce. If workers aren’t reemployed those companies are killing off some portion of their customer base. As that realization sets in, it will take a little energy out of the wave.

For those in the electronic component supply chain, however, this future is full of new customers and business expansion. It’s important to be aware of it and be prepared to service it in new ways, as it will emerge in non-traditional places, and may not come to market in traditional ways. Furthermore, as citizens of the world, we need to be aware of the tech-based things coming, thinking about them and their societal ramifications, if we hope to surf this new wave of automation instead of being drowned by it.