Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Should we do something simply because we can? 1: facing an emerging next generation of automation

Posted in career development, job search, job search and career development by Timothy Platt on January 31, 2014

I recently read a breathlessly written article in a popularized news magazine about how rapidly emerging next generation robotics will revolutionize the world, taking dangerous and boringly repetitive tasks out of the hands of humans, and particularly tasks that combine both high levels of immediate ongoing risk with their also being boringly repetitive and in ways that can lead to unwarranted carelessness.

• This article addressed challenges such as the task of searching partly collapsed buildings during a fire or after an earthquake with its aftershocks still taking place, in search of survivors. A small but agile robot or robotized human operated viewing platform could work its way into places and along paths that an adult rescue worker could not traverse in person and certainly not safely. And if survivors were found, their exact location could be identified three dimensionally in that structure and with detailed views of their surrounds that could be used in planning and executing a rescue effort, reducing the chances of further collapse from it.
• Lives could have been saved that were cut short or lost, as a result of need for people to go directly into harm’s way in the immediate aftermath of the initial Chernobyl disaster with its releases of radiation and of radioactive materials. Or more recently, a great deal of risk of long term injury could have been avoided after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster and from its immediate aftermath on – if autonomous robots or remotely human controlled robotic platforms could have been sent into its more lethally radioactive areas in these failed nuclear power plants, to both provide data and insight into the precise details and levels of damage faced, and to effect at least early stop-gap repairs to help limit further release of radioactive contaminants. People with of-necessity limited protective gear were literally going into areas that were intensely radioactive without knowing if all of the fuel rods at imminent risk of direct exposure were in fact still submerged in cooling water or not.
• And no list of examples of this type could be complete without mentioning clearance of one of war’s longer-term toxic consequences: unexploded landmines and other ordinance that can remain for years and even for generations after the end of formal hostilities. United States involvement in what in this country is called the Vietnam War ended almost exactly 40 years ago now, as of this writing. But civilians in Vietnam are still injured by and still die from accidentally encountering live ordinance from that conflict, and even from earlier wars in that area. Occasionally, unexploded ordinance from World War II and the German blitz is still found in London to this day. Worldwide, there may be as many as 100 million landmines and other live munitions out there, waiting to be tripped over, and in some countries where these weapons have been heavily used that risk can at least regionally be very significant. So another “out of harm’s way” application proposed for robotic participation and even autonomous robotic participation is in mine and live ordinance discovery and neutralization or removal.

But this posting is not about these types of robotic incursion into what has more traditionally been considered direct hands-on human activity. This same article also and I add primarily addressed robotic replacement of humans in carrying out a progressively wider range of what have been traditionally hands-on human jobs and careers.

I have already written in earlier postings about how the automotive manufacturing industry has all but fully automated and robotized spot welding in assembling vehicles: a skill set that was once carried out entirely in human worker hands. As of this writing, the Wikipedia article that I cite for spot welding even shows a picture of an autonomous, self-directed robotic spot welder in action as an illustration of what spot welding even is. Self-driving vehicles are now considered a benchmark robotics development goal. And when that goal is reached, the job and career path of long haul truck driving, and I add taxicab driving and a wide range of similar forms of human work will be numbered. It is safe to say their days in those careers are already numbered from the intensity of the effort under weigh to replace human workers with automated alternatives that do not need salary or benefits or work breaks or days off or sleep. So this discussion is not about going into dangerously half-collapsed buildings or into lethally radioactive or chemically contaminated disaster sites, and it is not about more safely finding and removing landmines, and with search and neutralization capabilities that can operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week without rest and without becoming dangerously complacent either – except as these situations represent special cases. This is about robotic automation of what as of this writing can best be viewed as a vast if still somewhat open and uncertain range of traditionally human work activities.

I write this as a first installment to a new series that I add to the supplements section to my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 3. I also write this as a continuation of a separate recently posted series that you can find in the supplements section to the second continuation page to this Guide: Some Thoughts on the Emerging Workplace and Employability Great Restructuring (see its Part 1 and Part 2.)

We are entering into a period of societal transformation of a type that we have not seen, and certainly in more technologically developed countries since the advent of steam and then gasoline and diesel powered farm equipment, and the rise of agribusiness enterprises, displacing vast numbers of workers off of the farm and out of agriculture as a way of life. But this transformation will directly impact upon a much wider and more open ended range of what have been available job and career paths and globally. And I end this posting with the question I raise in the title to this series:

• Should we do something simply because we can?

I am going to continue this discussion in a next series installment, starting from that question and with a goal of at least exploring the options and issues of automation, for its human impact – good, bad and in-between. I will also, as a part of that discussion, more fully discuss what this next generation wave of automation entails, merging robotic mechanicals with artificial intelligence augmented, and autonomously added control. Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings at my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 3 and at the first directory page and second, continuation page to this Guide.

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