For decades, robots have worked alongside humans. In the auto industry, for example, they’ve long been the most precise and reliable welders and painters. Sitting in place and doing the same job, over and over, has historically been automation’s sweet spot.
But, with the explosion in artificial intelligence, robots are coming to understand more complex, nuanced tasks. And they are able to navigate, both and outside. In agriculture, robots are not only plowing fields, but can now recognize weeds and zap them with lasers. In hospitals, robots are doing everything from fetching supplies for nurses to helping surgeons direct their instruments more precisely.
A 2020 World Economic Forum report predicted that robotics and automation would displace 85 million jobs globally in the coming five years. Yet, it also predicted that the technologies would create 97 million new jobs—generally ones requiring more skills and education.
Sure enough, that’s creating a lot of very-human anxiety. A 2021 Morning Consult poll found that 48% of Americans fear that automation will reduce the number of jobs. That fear was higher among adults earning less than $50,000 annually and those without a college degree.
“The people who have skills, who have training, they can get a job,” says Lionel P. Robert Jr., a professor at the University of Michigan Robotics Institute. “The people at the low end—when those jobs go away, they just have less options to find another job.”
As everyone knows, the supply chain is under tremendous pressure with a boom in consumer spending. E-commerce exploded as the pandemic lockdowns set in, and it continues to grow rapidly (up 14.2% from 2020 to 2021). Demand is accelerating the deployment of already advanced robots, and nowhere are the prospects for automation stronger than in two particular sectors: warehousing and trucking.
The automatic warehouse
“Moving pallets around, moving forklifts around, moving boxes around in fulfillment centers—that’s an area where we’ve seen just massive robotic explosion,” says Matthew Johnson-Roberson, director of the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. Amazon operates its own in-house robotics company to push the tech forward. And a growing cadre of startups, such as Berkshire Gray, Covariant, Dexterity, and Plus One Robotics, are offering automation services to the rest of the industry.
Take, for instance, the “put wall”—an array of cubbies that workers sprint to fill up with customer orders. Berkshire Gray now offers a robotic put wall that automatically fills the cubbies and transfers the completed orders for shipping. It can handle the same amount of orders with just one-third as many employees, the company claims.
And as robot AI gets better at recognizing and handling a greater variety of packages, the role for humans will continue to shrink. “We have a robotic field where we have hundreds of bots that actually work together. There’s no humans at all,” says Sri Solur, chief product officer at Berkshire Gray, which counts Walmart, Target, and FedEx among its clients. People only enter the picture when the system gets stuck, such as a jammed conveyor belt.
But for now, as the warehouse business keeps growing, the amount of work far outstrips what the machines can handle. Despite automation, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics expects warehouse employment to grow by 7% from 2020 to 2030. And warehouses are raising pay and adding perks to attract and retain workers for these exhausting jobs.
Goods have a long way to travel to and from warehouses, and the work of truckers is grueling. One of the job’s downsides is the monotony of highway driving—but such dull duties are, again, the sweet spot for automation. Several well-funded companies, including Aurora, Plus, TuSimple, and Google sister company Waymo, are testing automated driving systems.
Some companies have proposed first automating the highway part—which comprises over 90% of long-haul trucking—and using human drivers to handle the trickier navigation around cities. But Aurora, which collaborates with FedEx, Uber Freight, and Werner, says that it will be able to automate the entire trip by the end of 2023. “We think you have to actually do driving that is useful,” says Aurora CEO Chris Urmson. (who previously led Google’s self-driving car project). “And that means it has to start somewhere and end somewhere.”
Rachel Binder, a senior intelligence analyst at CB Insights, says that the highway part of trucking could soon be automated, but she expects full autonomy to take another 5 to 10 years. And it takes a long time for technology to go from possible to ubiquitous. “The investment necessary to create a fleet of robots that would meaningfully change the dynamics in the labor market is significant,” says Johnson-Roberson about automated trucking.
If automation fully takes over the trucking industry, it could ultimately replace up to 400,000 jobs, according to a 2020 Cornell University study. But will people miss those jobs? Even today, it’s hard to find people to take them. In 2021, the US had about 80,000 unfilled driving positions, estimates the American Trucking Associations.
Jobs are going away—someday
Today, economic, demographic, and cultural forces are uniting to push demand for labor-saving robotics at the same time that burgeoning AI technology is making radically smarter machines possible. Robots always start with the most mundane tasks. But as technology evolves, even roles that require a fair amount of human dexterity and judgment are falling under that definition.
None of this is happening in the next year or two, though. The 5, 10, or more years it takes for robots to catch up in both capability and numbers offer time for the current and next generation of workers to learn more advanced skills beyond what machines can do. And those skills could earn them more money, in more interesting jobs. Rather than people losing their employment to machines, the machines may simply fill in for occupations that people no longer want to do anyway.