Robots taking our jobs, Are you prepared?

by on May 21, 2015


Hi all
Continuing on with posts from the recent RoboUniverse show in New York, I want to talk about Robots, Jobs, and Education.

On the last day one of the primary talks was from Dennis Kambeitz at EZ-Robot. The topic was Preparing our workforce for a robotic world. I am going to try to hit on his key points. I do not necessarily agree with everything he said, but it is an interesting perspective and at least mostly correct (in my humble and probably wrong opinion).

His basic view is:
Will robots eliminate millions of human jobs? Yes
Will robots create millions of new human jobs? Yes

He used three scenarios to illustrate how robots will affect jobs.

  • Self driving cars are coming. When they come they will change many industries. Some initial industries that will loose human drivers are taxi drivers, bus drivers, and truck drivers. But the effect will spread to other industries. For example if it is easier/cheaper to ship things via truck, maybe less people will ship things by train. And if you can get work done while in your car, maybe people will avoid the hassle of flying, and fly less.
  • Customer service robots are also becoming more popular. Lowes is currently testing them to see if they can be used in stores yet. Once we have robots that are able to help direct people to the products they are looking for, and search online for any questions that they are asked, why will we need customer support people? The robots might eventually also even stock shelves at night when customers are not around (for an added benefit). This will destroy many jobs for people working in stores, malls, etc..
  • The last example is a bit different (and was also his marketing plug) with the use of the EZ-Robot platform. The general idea is that as it gets easier to build robots, people from many domains will be able to apply robots to their applications; as opposed to engineers making robots for other fields. This can almost be compared to how the Arduino changed how microcontrollers are used by non-engineers. But the idea that people in many fields will use robotics as a tool within their field, will cause robotics to grow. We have already seen people in film, fashion, construction, etc.. build robots to meet their needs.

Some of the robot kits from EZ-Robot. Imagine some of them running around with cameras, tools, clothing, etc..

There are generally 4 types of people that goto high school:

  1. People who will goto college
  2. People who will learn a trade
  3. People who get no further education
  4. People who drop out

These last two categories are really in trouble, as those are the job categories that will be greatly affected by robotics. Places like the USA and Canada will be hit hard due to our current high cost of labor; places like Nicaragua will not have this critical of a problem, due to the low cost of labor. So Dennis presents the solution is that we must train people in high school for the robot revolution. High schools need to start teaching about what to do with robotic platforms and how to work with them. Learning how to solder and work with metal is not the key skill, the key skill is the insight into where a robot can be used (and how to quickly build one with an EZ-Robot kit). This way if two people are applying for the same job, the one with the robotics experience will get the job (since robots will be around everything).

Now the question is do I agree with him? On the basic statement that robots will eliminate some jobs and create other jobs, I agree. Now while I think teaching high school students robotics is great, I am not sure if this is the ultimate solution (as the speaker made it sound). I would imagine (and I have just about no experience with high school education) that the bottom two groups of students are also the ones that often are not showing up to school, not paying attention, not trying, and have no external push to excel academically. So pushing high school robotics is not necessarily going to solve this problem and reach the groups that need it the most.

Larry Page from Google said something that I thought was very interesting. He said in this article that we should work fewer hours in the future. The reason I really like this, is imagine a world where a full time job was 20-30 hours a week. This would open up more hours to give more people jobs, and also allow people to spend more time with family and pursuing other interests. Having robots doing more tasks can help people work fewer hours. Now, you will probably argue that when the microwave, oven, dishwasher, etc… was invented we said “look how much time these new inventions will save”; but in reality look how long we still take to do those tasks and how much “free” time was created (even though they did reduce the workload). I would argue back that we now have time for leisure and hobbies, and are not spending all of our time hunting, gathering, and trying to find a new cave.

I have not read it yet, however Professor Illah Nourbakhsh recently published a book titled Parenting for Technology Futures: Part 1: Education & Technology (and its under $5!) which is all about getting our children to gain Technological Fluency. Knowing the author I am sure the book is great and full of great ideas. However I can imagine a similar problem as above where many of the people who drop out or do not continue with education past high school do not have a family structure to promote these ideas.

What do you think? How do we handle the emergence of robots? Leave your comments below.

Disclaimer: This was my takeaway from the talk.

Main image was found via a Google image search at
EZ-Robot images are from the EZ-Robot website

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I was at RoboUniverse Day 1 and Dennis’ conversation on this topic with a small group at his booth caught my attention. I typically try to avoid engaging in discussions regarding how automation affects jobs because the subject matter hits people at a very personal level and there are so many unknowns that it’s really rather impossible to say how things will work out. It is interesting to debate, however, and I think I share most of Dennis’ opinions. Automation is coming (it already has been in some sense for most of history) and society must adapt. Ideally, our government would recognize this and rejuvenate our educational system and job market to create students who are prepared to fill new high-tech roles but this has not been the case so far. As a parent of 4, I know that the best I can do is prepare them for their professional and personal lives so I plan to check out the book you mentioned and hope that some of the concepts stick.

In the talk Dennis mentioned that Canada recently reestablished the high school curriculum for the next 10 years. He tried to get robotics included, however the people in charge of the curriculum did not understand the importance of including a robotics education and the impact that robotics will have on the future.

While it is clear that robotics is growing and will greatly affect our lives, I also refuse to give people time estimates for when these changes will happen.

There are many interesting and comment worthy ideas here. Thanks for the post. I think part of the solution that I don’t hear specifically discussed is a trade school re-brand. In short, we should be working to bridge the gap between high school students 1 and 2 with robotics just as much as the effort I see out there to engage students 3 and 4. From my experience in California’s education system, trade school is still very stigmatized as a route for people who aren’t as smart or capable as those going on to traditional college. I think this is a problem as many students coming out of traditional higher education in tech fields often hit the job market with very little hands on, practical skill anyway. There are people trying to affect this well known phenomenon, especially in engineering, but I don’t hear talk about how this effort relates to trade school specifically and I think that could be an important piece of preparing our workforce for the robot revolution. “Trade school” today is becoming an expert in C/C++. Or PCB design. These skills are not thought of as a plan B for second tier students, yet they yield themselves nicely to trade school format. Trade school is ready for a re-brand and robotics provides a great marketing platform, especially with all of the momentum the Maker Movement already has in this direction. Many self proclaimed “hobbyists” are essentially people putting themselves through their own version of a trade school but it’s considered cool and smart by the media! Great opportunity for the education system to capitalize on in preparing our future workforce.

Yes I agree that trade schools need/should be remodeled. I think for the most part they are for-profit which leads to large tuition’s and not focusing on which people would do best in that particular school. I think if there were more public (similiar to a state university) trade school that would be great for teaching some of these skills.

I should also point out that I went to a trade school before going to a traditional university. I have a entire write up about it here

I think one big difference between makers and a person going to trade school is interest. Most makers are passionate and have an interest in the topic which makes them push hard to learn. When I was in a trade school many people were there to do something that sounded good, they were not genuinely interested; this was apparent in their work and desire to learn.

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