Science fiction authors have predicted it for years. Movies and video games have made references to it, and companies like Google have even taken the first steps toward making it a reality. It may have seemed too far-fetched to actually happen, but humanity has finally reached the precipice of singularity.
And now it’s starting to happen for real: We’re handing over the keys to robots.
One driving force behind technological innovation is to save humans the toll of labor, and to capitalize on the increased efficiency and steadfastness of machines. From the first invention of the wheel until now, technology and machinery have been able to lift humanity out of the darkest recesses of the forests and grasslands around the world and raise us to the mantle of Earth’s animal kingdom. From fire and agriculture to gunpowder and Playstations, innovative technology is the catalyst behind humanity’s ascension.
For hundreds, if not thousands of years, robotics and artificial intelligence were an unfathomable idea which, if not for many lucky breaks throughout humankind’s past, would never have become a reality. Now, the idea of artificial intelligence has transformed from the friendly “buddy” type seen in sci-fi movies in the 1950s, to a more genuine concern among the working-class public: Robots are going to take your job.
While it’s easy to dismiss what may be premature panic at the onset of robotic workers, it’s hard to dismiss the notion that the takeover has already begun and doesn’t look like it’s going to stop or slow down. In fact, politicians and business leaders are invested in speeding up the process. President Obama announced the creation of a program to to develop the next generation of artificial workers, dubbed the Major Robotics Initiative. When the president of the United States is jumping on board, it’s hard to deny that robots are starting to sweep the marketplace.
How explosive will the robot revolution be in speed and scale? According to John Dulchinos, CEO of Adept Technology, robotics is currently a $5 billion industry, but will swell to a mind-boggling $100 billion by 2020, as reported by IEEE Spectrum. With those kinds of numbers being thrown around by industry insiders, it appears the concern expressed by the world’s low-wage and unskilled workers is more than justified.
There are big companies already taking advantage of robotics to cut down on labor costs and streamline their production. Some workers are already feeling the sting of robotic competitors for their labor, and it might be happening a lot closer to home than you think.
Read on to see four companies that are starting to replace people with machines.
Amazon blew the world’s collective mind when it announced a while back that it was looking at a new way of getting deliveries to customers via drones. While the news at first seemed like something out of The Onion, it turns out that the company was actually deep into researching the feasibility, and that companies like UPS were also exploring the idea themselves. So now that delivery drivers are a little more on edge, Amazon has announced they are going to be expanding their robotic workforce to other areas of the company, namely warehouses.
As Internet Retailer reports, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has announced an influx of 10,000 robots into the company’s warehouses by the end of 2014. Amazon acquired Kiva Systems Inc. a couple of years ago, and is now putting to work what the robotics company has been able to develop in the meantime. Hopes are the robot workforce will help streamline efficiency and workflow, and over the long run cut down on labor costs.
In the near future, you may be receiving your Amazon order without the package having ever touched human hands.
Might big-burrito chain Chipotle Mexican Grill be looking to augment its workforce with artificial intelligence? Fast food is one of the first industries that is always mentioned when the subject of robotic labor comes up, but it appears companies like Amazon are way ahead of them. Chipotle is one restaurant chain that seems to keep popping up when robotic workers hit the headlines, but the technology still seems a bit premature for actual food assembly.
It does look like ordering kiosks could be the first way that artificial intelligence and computers begin to creep into the restaurant industry, likely leading to staff downsizing as register workers and hosts may no longer be needed. Once robotic systems are developed to actually assemble meals, it is hoped they will help curb the spread of germs and eliminate order errors. However, the food industry can be complicated, and robots may not be the best solution to the problems many businesses face. As Slate points out, restaurants may not see full automation for a while, at least until after other industries have been taken over by machines.
Infamous for keeping labor costs low, McDonald’s is a prime candidate for robotic labor in the near future. Expect to see ordering kiosks replace cashiers and automation systems to take over the meal-assembly process, but a little further in the future. The company appears to be ready to take on technology’s advantages as soon as possible, with rising protests concerning worker’s rights and minimum wage continue to dominate headlines in cities across the country. As CNN reports, there looks to be a 92% chance that fast food will become a fully-automated industry in the next few decades.
McDonald’s is a company that definitely seems the upside in automation. With increases in minimum wage looking to be the company’s biggest hurdle in coming years, adopting a robotic workforce will become more and more attractive. According to CNBC, by employing automated systems instead of human employees, McDonald’s can avoid having to deal with the fallout of its labor practices. “How long will it be before trillions are served their burgers and fries by a drone, after being cooked by a droid? Those machines work for cheap, and the best thing is, they have no concept of hard work, or dignity, or the foresight to consider whether or not the ‘cool’ things they can do ultimately contribute, or detract, from a strong, consumer-dependent economy,” CNBC says.
For a giant merchandise company like Nike, robotic labor may be a solution to many of its problems. Having been the target of human rights and worker’s rights groups for many years, Nike does most of its manufacturing in foreign plants, notorious for having long hours and awful working conditions. As we know, however, robots don’t care about the duration of work nor the conditions, making them very attractive to companies like Nike.
Nike has already taken steps to adopt automation, eliminating 106,000 contract workers and closed down 125 of its least-efficient factories, leading to a 16% increase in profits in 2013, according to International Business Times. Nike has already tasted the increase in profits that can be taken in by switching to a mechanized labor force, and there’s no reason to expect it won’t keep pushing in that direction.
As foreign factories begin to be taken over by robotic workers, its easy to see why many American workers find themselves concerned about the advent of mechanized labor. The effects on the economy and what politicians and business leaders plan to do about the consequences is something that will need to be addressed in the very near future.
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