Rise of the robots: Jobs machines can do better than you

The robots are coming, and this time it’s for your job. They’re bypassing the interview process and heading straight for your desk, not to mention the desks of your co-workers. And it looks like they’re here to stay.

With technology advancing and the labor market evolving, the encroachment of robots is more widespread than you ever dreamed of. You’ll soon find them in your doctor’s office, behind the wheel of your car, and checking you in at your hotel.

Jerry Kaplan, author of Humans Need Not Apply, says that their presence won’t always be noticeable. Some—like the ones greeting you at the bank or the department store—will look vaguely human. Others will basically be invisible.

“When they say the robots are coming, it doesn’t mean they’re going to look like people,” Kaplan says. “They’ll come in the form of distributed systems capable of performing a job better than humans can, or storing information better than humans can, or perceiving different patterns in cyber space that humans can’t readily analyze.”

Kaplan attributes the rise of the robots to two breakthroughs in artificial intelligence: machine learning, which feeds off large quantities of data being inputted into computer programs; and sensory perception, which allows robots to take in information about their environment and react accordingly.

Robots have patiently waited in the unemployment line for the following jobs—all of which they’re now capable of taking on.

Doctor

With advancements in artificial intelligence, there’s a possibility that robots will fill jobs in the medical field that require high skill and intellect, says Hod Lipson, professor of engineering at Columbia University.

How is that possible? While a doctor can see 10 to 20 patients a day, Lipson expects that artificial intelligence could allow thousands of patients to be treated in that same time frame, and for a fraction of the cost.

“It’s both exciting and alarming,” Lipson says. “Lots of lives will be saved with robotic doctors, but a lot of jobs will be lost. There are pros and cons to this.”

Robots are already working away in hospital operating rooms. If you’re getting knee-replacement surgery, for example, a robotic arm may help with the procedure.

Sanjay K. Gupta, medical director of the joint replacement program at Connecticut’s Danbury Hospital, says the device uses 3-D visualization of the entire pelvis to assist surgeons.

“It guides the surgeon to put the socket exactly in the way it’s intended to be put in,” Gupta says. “That makes the surgery very precise and very reproducible.”

Journalist

Narrative Science, a Chicago company that specializes in machine-generated articles, is teaming up with media outlets to provide sports stories and earnings reports. For run-of-the mill coverage, it’s less expensive to go this route than to hire reporters.

How does it work? When scorekeepers email post-game data to Narrative Science, a software program called Quill whips up a pretty accurate story in a matter of minutes.

The same holds true for business stories. Even big publications like Forbes are getting in on the act, using the technology to summarize earnings reports.

When it comes to most articles, you won’t even know a human didn’t write them.

“The truth is that machines are much better at analyzing that kind of data than people are,” says Stuart Frankel, CEO of Narrative Science. “Technology like Quill emerged to automate a task people are spending a lot of time doing.”

Photographer

It’s expensive to rent out a helicopter to get some great aerial shots, but with drones, you can capture all the footage you need for comparatively little money. They’re also becoming indispensible for special events, weddings, and even exotic vacations.

Drones have become so popular that the Federal Aviation Administration is cracking down on unauthorized flights. Earlier this month, it announced a $1.9 million fine for a company that operated drones in restricted airspace over New York and Chicago.

But even with these restrictions, the use of drones continues to skyrocket, and startups have been quick to take advantage of the growing industry. Queen B Robotics, based out of WeWork Berkeley, develops software that allows a fleet of drones to communicate with one another, while FreeSkies, a member of WeWork Golden Gate, was founded to make drone photography even easier.

“Photographers and cinematographers will need hybrid autonomous drones that assist without limiting creativity,” says Jay Mulakala, co-founder of FreeSkies. “Drones are the next visual domain that is set to transform film from the skies.”

Professional Driver

By now, you’ve surely heard of the Google Self-Driving Car. The Google X project is already forcing the government to consider down-the-line legal ramifications, and the Department of Transportation has given four states and Washington, D.C. the power to draft rules governing how these self-driving cars are tested and sold.

Ridesharing companies like Uber and Lyft are wary of these changes. Soon, they’ll face the interesting dilemma of whether they should also deploy self-driving cars to keep pace with the latest technology.

But it’s not just cars that will be speeding down the highway without drivers; soon, commercial vehicles will also be operated remotely.

“The technology being developed will eliminate cars and trucks altogether,” Kaplan says. “There’s a likelihood that the role of cab drivers will be greatly reduced in the future. But the first to go will be long-haul truck driving because it’s the simplest thing to automate.”

Caregiver

Say bye to baby-sitters. Chinese company AvatarMind created the iPal to give kids a fun and interactive friend to play with while their parents are away at work. The cartoon-like robot on wheels made an appearance at a recent RoboBusiness conference in San Jose, California, where attendees had a chance to interact with it and admire its many talents. It can sing, dance, play, talk, and read with children, and has an LCD display and sensors that help provide therapy for kids with special needs.

Parents can use AvatarMind to monitor their loved ones remotely via smartphone, and even initiate a video call that uses a screen on the robot’s chest, says John Ostrem, the company’s co-founder.

Customer service rep

When you walk into a hotel lobby, imagine someone behind the desk handing you a refreshing cup of water and striking up a conversation. You’ll do a double take when you realize you’re talking to a robot.

That’s right: robots are taking the customer service sector by storm. They’re programmed to answer tons of tough questions that their human counterparts might not always know the answer to. And you’ll never see them calling their managers over.

The famous example is Pepper, a Japanese humanoid robot that has the ability to read emotions, react to its environment, and spark interactions with customers. Behind the design of these intelligent, wheeled robots—which, among other things, can recognize and remember your tastes and preferences—are Aldebaran Robotics and SoftBank Mobile.

Magali Cubier, global marketing and communications director at Aldebaran, says Pepper can actually increase traffic and engage customers.

“Pepper is not supposed to eliminate jobs,” Magali says, “but act more like another layer on top of in-store professionals to provide customers the best experience possible.”

[Your name here]

Someday, robots just might replace your physical presence while you’re away on vacation or on a business trip.

Double, a teleconferencing tool created by California-based Double Robotics, sits in on business meetings when you’re not there. A web-based platform and iOS app allow you to have a virtual presence through video chat. If you really wanted to, you could grab a seat at the lunch table, have a one-on-one meeting, or just roam around the office saying hello to co-workers.

Another way to roll is via Beam, a robot created by WeWork South Station member Suitable Technologies. Barack Obama used Beam this past summer during a reception at the White House. For the workplace, the upside of having Beam show up to your meetings is that it’s always ready to go. It doesn’t need a coffee or lunch break. Instead, Beam has a battery dock on its feet, which keeps you juiced up throughout the day.

Amid the rising tide of robots, there’s nothing for entrepreneurs to be worried about—so far, at least. “Robots don’t start companies,” says Kaplan. If anything, they’re taking on work that requires the ability to retain a great deal of information or perform repetitive tasks. In doing so, they’re helping us focus on creating jobs we’re truly passionate about and actively pursuing them with a higher purpose.

Illustration: Lisa Ito

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