Series | Uprising
"collaborative" robots are taking our jobs, but it might be a good thing

Here’s why you'll thank the cobot that's out to steal your job.

Watch on YouTube

The fear of a cobot stealing your job is real. Technological innovations have led to lost jobs in the past, such as automated assembly lines in the automotive industry. And more recently, the fear of robots replacing jobs has hit an industry that employs millions of people – trucking.

The American Trucking Association estimates that over 3.5 million people currently work as truck drivers. What will happen when self-driving trucks are deemed less expensive, more reliable, and safer than human operators?

Although we can’t completely predict future events, it probably won’t be the end of the world as we know it if there is a robotic uprising in the workforce. In fact, it could be a good thing. 

Why We Need Collaborative Robots 

While being human gives us unique strengths in our creative, emotional brains, it also means we’re stuck with quite a few physical limitations as compared to robots.

This is where collaborative robots come into play. They’re designed to work alongside humans to perform both routine and risky tasks. Instead of completely replacing jobs, think of them as taking on the duties nobody really wants, anyway. Like washing machines and calculators, they’re designed to help improve our lives.

Cobots can take on the sort of tasks that aren’t well-suited for the human body, such as assembly line work that can lead to repetitive stress injuries, or tasks that require working with dangerous substances in unsafe environments.

So when it comes to completing dirty, dull, or dangerous tasks, shouldn’t we welcome robots taking jobs? Perhaps even more convincing is the fact that robots are much less expensive and easier to train (or program) than humans.

As a result, their use on automotive assembly lines made cars more affordable. If we built every car by hand, it would take much more time and money, and the product wouldn’t be nearly as reliable. Arguably, the automotive industry wouldn’t even be an industry without cobots.

Depending on its design, a cobot has the potential to do just about any physical task — pick fruit, build houses, perform surgery, explore Saturn, and even peel grapes — probably much better than our delicate human bodies and shaky hands can.

The Cobot Helping Meet Our Most Basic Need

The largest, most fundamental problem all humans face is making sure all of our basic needs (food, shelter, and clothing) are met. Our drive to survive paired with our instinct for planning and problem-solving has led to countless innovations throughout human history.

But cobots can help make sure our needs are met. One example comes from a California-based startup that created a farm bot. Their cobot is designed to tend a garden for you, using artificial intelligence to pick weeds and deliver perfectly timed and measured spritzes of water.

FarmBot requires very little assistance from its owners. A human with a FarmBot need only worry about selecting which seeds to grow and designing a garden plot on a tablet, which connects remotely to their backyard bot.

FarmBot aims to ensure every household can grow fruits and veggies, regardless of free time and know-how. Essentially, this cobot provides a source of food, freeing people up to travel, spend time with family, or come up with the next big, brilliant idea humanity has yet to see.

People have spent the last 10,000 years learning to do things they didn’t evolve to do, such as planting and harvesting crops or working on assembly lines.

Cobots will free us to live the way we’re designed to live and think about the things our brains have evolved to think about. We’ll be able to focus on improving our societies and solving for problems other than our most basic needs. 

If Money Were No Object, What Would You Do?

When asked this question, most people mention exploring the world, working for an important cause, making art, or even starting a business. When cobots meet our basic needs, we’ll be free to create industry around the enterprises we deem valuable, which could trigger a fundamental transformation of society.

Not convinced? Look at the industry that’s been created around sports, like the NBA. Basketball satisfies no basic need, nor does it solve any of humanity’s problems. Yet, we’ve created an eight billion dollar industry that employs thousands of people who are all centered around an arbitrary activity — tossing a ball through a hoop — simply because we’ve decided it’s valuable. 

The Reality of Robots Taking Over Jobs

It’s important to realize that in the past, some automation led to the creation of more jobs. When the first barcode was successfully scanned in 1974, people worried there’d be no more need for cashiers.

The retail industry however, ended up hiring even more cashiers because barcodes transformed their jobs from looking up items to interacting with customers, which increased sales. Although comforting, this may not always be the case.

Cobots are going to present economic challenges and changes that we cannot yet fully understand or predict. The shift to implementing cobots, however, will occur gradually. Robots won’t be replacing jobs across entire industries overnight.

After all, at least one area in which humans still excel above robots is found in our humanity, our ability to experience emotions, and in our propensity for creativity.

But a gradual shift will give people time to adjust and progressively change the way we think about our jobs. As cobots begin handling the more mundane, dangerous, and undesirable tasks involved in meeting our needs, we’ll start to change our perception of the sorts of work we deem worthy of human minds and hands.

For more interesting news about the people and ideas that are changing our world, subscribe to Freethink.

Subscribe to Freethink for more great stories