A machine that administers sedatives recently began treating patients at a Seattle hospital. At a Silicon Valley hotel, a bellhop robot delivers items to people’s rooms. Last spring, a software algorithm wrote a breaking news article about an earthquake that The Los Angeles Times published.
Although fears that technology will displace jobs are at least as old as the Luddites, there are signs that this time may really be different. The technological breakthroughs of recent years — allowing machines to mimic the human mind — are enabling machines to do knowledge jobs and service jobs, in addition to factory and clerical work.
And over the same 15-year period that digital technology has inserted itself into nearly every aspect of life, the job market has fallen into a long malaise. Even with the economy’s recent improvement, the share of working-age adults who are working is substantially lower than a decade ago — and lower than any point in the 1990s.
Last week Amazon revealed how it is using robots. Did the company divulge a secret lab where humanoid machines made out of steel are slowly plotting to take over the planet? Hardly. The 320-pound, orange automatons from Kiva Systems (which Amazon acquired in 2012) move high, heavy shelves full of products closer to human employees, speeding up the time it takes to dispatch goods to customers.
Kiva’s robots look remarkably like steroid-enhanced versions of the vacuum-cleaning robot Roomba. Both Kiva and Roomba robots are essentially automation machines guided by software, compute and other sensors to move around and do tasks that humans would have previously done. This stands in stark contrast to what we expect: Real-life robots don’t look like humans or animals, and they certainly can’t wrest control away from the people using them.