Should we welcome or resist the idea of robots replacing human beings in the workplace?

Author: Chirin Soh
School: Raffles Institution
Year Written: 2020
Grade: A

The Henn na Hotel in Japan is the world’s first robot-staffed hotel that employs cutting-edge technology and aims to serve customers a stress free experience. A customer is first greeted by robot dinosaurs, then has his things taken up by another robot to his room cleaned also by a robot. Its owner aims to make this the most efficient hotel in the world by reducing manpower and having 90 percent of the staff be robotic. Emerging innovation in fields such as robotics, artificial intelligence, biotechnology is revolutionising the efficiency of workforces and improving the quality of life and income of people all over the world. Although the idea of robots taking over the role of human beings is not universally embraced, the positive implications it brings to the economy, governments and people outweigh its negative consequences. Hence, the idea of robots replacing human beings in the workplace should be welcomed instead of resisted.

Companies might welcome the use of robots as they provide low-cost alternatives to labour and increased efficiency to increase profits. Robots are able to do work that takes humans longer time and greater effort. John Deere is an agricultural company that uses self-driving tractors. This reduces the need for people to man the machinery. It also has a lettuce farming robot that is capable of identifying unwanted plants, and shooting them with deadly, high-precision squirts of herbicide. Such robotic technology is increasingly employed in the agricultural sector, an industry once highly labour-intensive. Self-checkout counters are also becoming more commonly seen in supermarkets. This reduces the number of cashiers needed and can improve the shopping experience for customers through increasing the number of counters and reducing their queuing time. Especially with the hectic lifestyle of many working class nowadays, this option is preferred and increases the popularity of the supermarket. Automation by robots is also becoming common in airports. A study by international Air Transport Association found that moving to fully automated check-in baggage system saves the industry $1.6 billion a year since the cost per customer of a using a staffed check in desk is $3 but with a machine, this drops to 14 cents. In the food and beverage industry, Momentum Machines have developed a robot that can produce 400 hamburgers in an hour while fully autonomous, from slicing toppings to grilling to assembling and packaging. Hence, it is evident that a great range of industries are welcoming robots into the workforce to improve efficiency and become more profitable.

We should also welcome the idea of robots replacing humans in doing routine, predictable type and precision tasks. This can free up humans to do tasks in innovation or customer service, more suited to human strengths. Amazon is trying out the use of Kiva robots in its warehouses to pick up merchandise and fulfill orders. In the past, there was a report on how the efficiency of human Amazon workers were tracked. This created a lot of pressure on the workers to perform well resulting in poor working experiences for them. Work in agriculture also used to be very tedious as it involved back breaking work for humans. However, with the use of robots, tough jobs can be handled by them, relieving humans of hard labour. Ecrobotix, a Swiss technology firm has a solar-controlled bot that not only can identify weeds but thereafter can treat them. Naio Technologies based in southwestern France has developed a robot with the ability to weed, hoe, and assist during harvesting. Energid Technologies based in Cambridge, Massachusetts has developed a citrus picking system that retrieves one piece of fruit every 2-3 seconds. Meanwhile, Blue River Technology has developed the LettuceBot2 that attaches itself to a tractor to thin out lettuce fields as well as prevent herbicide-resistant weeds. Robots being programmed to do these tedious, mundane tasks have allowed people to move on to higher-level jobs that will prove more fulfilling.

Society should also welcome the use of robots because they possess the capability to surpass what humans can accomplish. The use of cutting edge robotic technology can improve the effectiveness and quality of work as the robots posess special skills. In the medical field, the Da Vinci Surgical System scales down a surgeon’s hand movements to let him make tiny incision. This creates less tissue damage and lead to a quicker recovery. This allows for better quality of healthcare treatment for the people. A faster recovery means more bed space and reduction in the problem of space shortage in many hospitals all over the world. The Flex Robotic System developed by Medrobotics are equipped with a high definition camera and can bend to conform to the patient’s anatomy and guide instruments through a patients body. An implication of this is that humans and robots can work together in increasing the quality of work produced. Doctors at a Children’s National Health System in Washington have developed a smart tissue autonomous robot (STAR) that requires only light human supervision. It has carried out successful operations on piglets. In the future, this robot technology might be developed such that it can conduct surgeries on humans. This reduces the shortage on surgeons and patients will have less waiting time in receiving surgeries. Healthcare is also currently very expensive and takes a big toll on government expenses. The use of robots with advanced capabilities and lower cost can reduce the financial burden.

However, the idea of replacing human beings will be resisted by workers for fear of losing their jobs to robots. There is a likely consequence of hollowing out of middle income jobs. These middle income jobs can be easily replaced by robots and artificial intelligence. Though there may be jobs to satisfy demand, new jobs created by automation might be lower-skilled and lower paid, thus creating a polarisation of income. Many cases of retrenchments have emerged. Foxconn, the supplier of Apple and Samsung has cut 60000 factory workers and replaced them with robots. By 2018, an estimated 90% of transactions used to be performed by tellers are already done through ATM. This is due to the rise of customers turning more to mobile banking and ATMs instead of the actual bank tellers.

Nevertheless, new innovation creates more jobs than destroys them. The employment of robots in the workplace is unlikely to cause the widespread unemployment or wage disparity as feared due to the policies in place to support human labour in the face of such technological changes. More countries are investing in training opportunities that equip workers with skills to perform new tasks created by automation. Reivision of the tax code reduces subsidies directed towards capital relative to labour. This minimizes incentives to inefficiently substitute capital for labour. This also slows down the take up of robots in the workforce allowing lag time for workers to gain skills and adapt. In addition, wage subsidies are also directed towards technology that develops new tasks to allow people to earn a living wage and retain some level of meaning and dignity. With all the policies in place, fears of robots making all human labour obsolete are unfounded and hence the idea of robots replacing human beings for certain jobs ought to still be welcomed.

In conclusion, the future of the workforce is going to require the balance between robots replacing labour and robots creating new job opportunities. With advancement of technology and research, the features and capabilities of robots will only improve. The benefits it brings to the workforce and economy greatly outweighs the negative consequences. Resisting this inevitable shift in the system is futile so welcoming them in the workplace is necessary to adapt with the changes.