Robots are here to help us, not replace us

Article3 mins15 October 2019By Scott Rochfort

The debate on whether new technologies will replace jobs has been going on for centuries.

One dramatic illustration of this was the mass uprising by the skilled cloth weavers called the Luddites in the early 1800s against the introduction of machinery into textile mills in England.

"Factories had been burned, employers threatened and attacked, and the obnoxious machines smashed. It was the vain struggle of the ignorant and badly paid people to keep down production and to keep up wages, to maintain manual labour against the power of the steam engine," wrote G.A. Henty in his 1886 book about the revolt.

But history tells us that there was a rapid rise in the number of people employed in factories in the 1800s following the widespread adoption of machinery and automation.

Boston University School of Law economist James Bessen noted the number of weavers grew in the 1800s despite technology automating 98 per cent of the labour involved in weaving cloth.

The current advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics are now triggering similar concerns that they could displace jobs.

It's all about automating menial tasks, leaving more time for the more enriching work.

Danny Krieger Lamson
Robots will eliminate menial tasks not jobs

But Danny Krieger, the managing director the Sydney company Lamson Group, which has introduced several types of Automatic Guided Vehicles and robots into various workplaces, says there is nothing to fear.

"All of the technology we've deployed over the last 120 years has been used to improve productivity in the workplace and robotics is no different," Krieger says.

In the 2000s, Lamson expanded its product line into robots, including its Automated Guided Vehicles, followed by other robotic solutions including RoboCart transporting trolleys, RoboButlers, RoboCouriers and RoboPatrols.

Krieger cites the case of an aged care facilities in Queensland where Lamson deployed a fleet of RoboCarts to transport linen, waste and food. 

Krieger says the robotic carts have allowed nurses to spend more time on more essential tasks. In one facility, the robots travelled a collective 7,500km in a year, the equivalent of pushing a heavy trolley from Brisbane to Broome.

"The nurses can now focus more on the residents than pushing trolleys. It's all about automating menial tasks, leaving more time for the more enriching work.," says Krieger.

In the case of hotels, Lamson's RoboButlers and Robocarts can deliver room service to guests, and supplies to housekeeping staff, which frees up the staff to focus on other tasks.

It is early days, but robots are now appearing in office buildings, principally as mail and food delivery robots and concierges. "It is not about replacing staff but creating a new tenant experience. They are doing menial tasks that people don't want to do," says Krieger.

The Lamson RoboButler can deliver room service to guests

Robots will let us do the tasks we enjoy

Juxi Leitner, a researcher at the Australian Centre of Excellence for Robotic Vision, says robots have the potential to do physically dangerous and demanding tasks that people are unable or don't want to do.

Some examples include robots picking shards of broken glass in recycling plants or fruit picking. Leitner notes how the ongoing shortages of fruit pickers are now resulting in a significant amount of fruit being left to rot on trees in orchards in Australia each year.

In the case of AI, Leitner says it will increasingly be able to take over repetitive tasks that can be automated.

Paradoxically, robots and automation will allow people to focus more on the areas of their jobs that rely on human interaction and less on time-consuming and repetitive tasks.

"With the growth of automation, we will be more productive as we  spend less time on smaller repetitive tasks. It will allow us to focus on tasks that are we are interested in doing," he says.

A recent report by the professional services firm Deloitte noted technological advances have already resulted in a shift from manual labour to "caring" and "thought-based cognitive work". Or how its authors put it, "a shift from hands to heads".

"Physical machines were adopted across countless production lines, while computer technologies enabled fields like finance, science and information technology to rapidly evolve and expand," it explained. The report said recent developments in technology are now seeing a shift to non-routine jobs which are not susceptible to automation and which can be complemented by technology.

Deloitte argues there is nothing negative about the shift towards knowledge worker jobs, which it predicts will make up 86 per cent of the jobs created in the next decade.

These trends in job markets aren't alarming, they're liberating. The boring, repetitive work will be done by robots, leaving the more challenging, interesting and rewarding work for humans.

Read on for more insights

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