20 Mar 2023  |   04:54am IST

Robotics, AI, and the evolving nature of work

Robotics, AI, and the evolving nature of work

Shanti Maria Fonseca

“There will be fewer and fewer jobs that a robot cannot do better.  I want to be clear.  These are not things I wish will happen, these are thinks that will probably happen, and then we have to think about, what are we going to do about it? I think some kind of basic universal income is going to be necessary.” – Elon Musk Founder and CEO of Tesla and Space X

The danger of the past was that men became slaves.  The danger of the future is that men may become slaves to robots. The job market of the future will consist of those jobs that robots cannot perform.  Robots will harvest, cook and serve our food.  They will work in our factories, drive our cars and walk our dogs.  Like it or not, the age of work is coming to an end.  Mounting job losses due to advance in automation, Artificial Intelligence and Robotics have come to be the order of the day.  It’s only a matter of time when we are going to see the cover of time magazine with the photograph of a Robot declaring him/her the best CEO of the Century. What are we doing to prepare our children to face this eventuality?  The curriculum in most schools and colleges in India is not aligned with the present developments. The modern age demands a technology-centric approach towards education.  How can higher education prepare students for their professional lives when professions themselves are disappearing?

Due to the wide variety of robotics and their abilities, industrial robots have numerous applications in manufacturing.  Typically, robots in the manufacturing industry are needed for Welding, Painting, Pick and Place, Packaging and labelling, Assembly and Disassembly, product inspection, Product testing, Palletizing, Polishing, Grinding and buffing.  As industrial robots become faster, smarter and cheaper, more and more companies are beginning to integrate this technology in conjunction with their workforce.  The medical community has greatly benefitted from advancements in robotic automation.  Robots are now helping surgeons perform surgeries that require precision. In one scenario a surgical semi-autonomous robot performed better than the human surgeons with increased precision and less damage to the surrounding tissue.  

The agriculture industry has been utilizing robotics to increase productivity while lowering costs.  With sensor technology, farmers can monitor diseases and pests that negatively impact crop yields.  Fruit and vegetable picking is an area of much investment.  Computer vision can tell whether something is ripe.  Human contact with pharmaceuticals can cause contamination. Drug companies naturally want to minimize the chance this will happen.  Robots are useful for this reason alone.  One example is packaging medical syringes.  Syringes must be picked off a conveyor line and placed in a container.  When a person does this, there is a risk of contamination and injury.  Having robots perform this function proved challenging because the syringes are transparent.  Assisting pharmacist is a relatively new case for robots.  They are ideal for menial tasks like counting pills.  Prescriptions are entered into the pharmacy computer system.  The software can determine the correct size of container needed.  It can find the appropriate drug and a robotic arm can dispense the pills into the container.  The robot can also apply an appropriate label and place the labelled container on a conveyor belt.

Driverless cars are hitting the road, powered by Artificial Intelligence.  Robots can now climb stairs, open doors, analyse stocks, work in factories, advice oncologists, be the perfect legal researcher and analyze all kinds of data.  Warehouses are starting to use aerial drones to take inventory.  When done manually, the inventory-taking process involves people getting up on ladders.  They have to look into the boxes to count the number of items.  It is time-consuming, slow and tedious.  Drones can fly through the aisles, reading barcodes and counting items.  When their batteries begin to get low, the drones fly to a nesting area and recharge.  With such aerial robots, inventory can be taken at very short intervals, saving huge amounts of time and money. Masons need to lift heavy cement blocks.  The average mason lifts 3000 such blocks per day.  The work is exhausting and repetitive motion injuries are common.  Many masons need shoulder operations before long.  Robotic arms, guided by the masons, can do the heavy lifting. Robots eliminate dangerous jobs for humans because they are capable of working in hazardous conditions/environments, such as poor lighting, toxic chemicals, etc. They can handle effortlessly the lifting of heavy loads without injury or tiring. This has helped companies to prevent many accidents, also saving time and money.  In many workplaces, they also make work more enjoyable.

To the extent that robotisation and automation eliminate the demand for low-educated and routine employment, unions are unable to reverse this trend even if they are able to maintain the jobs of current routine workers until retirement.  Labour unions have been protecting the rights of workers as far back as the 18th century.  In fact, Labour Day, a public holiday celebrated world over came to be born because of the insistence of organised labour unions.

Labour Unions are complex organising bodies and their survival will depend on whether industry truly values the everyday worker over the convenience of automation.  However, in times of changing workplaces and work forces, participatory labour relations require unions to be promoters of, rather than obstacles to, innovation and change. Will labour unions survive in the era of automation?  Integrative bargaining can allow unions to have a role in the organisational structure of a company and achieve win-win agreements delivering mutual gains for both workers and employers. 

(The writer is a social scientist and a senior practicing criminal lawyer)


Iddhar Udhar