At Vigilant Robots we make security robots. When I talk to people about putting robots to work, one of the first comments I hear is something like: “Won’t these robots put people out of work?” In part that is driven by the impact of industrial robotics on assembly line workers, in part it is driven by a vision of robot’s capabilities that maybe exaggerated (see my earlier post on the Mythical Robot). My answer is that robots are far more likely to become co-workers than competitors for most jobs.
Robots as assistants
It is going to be a while before you call for a plumber and a robot shows up at your door to fix the pipes, or your robotic housekeeper keeps your house de-cluttered, swept and vacuumed, and puts your laundry is put away.
However, what you might see in the near future is the plumber arriving with a robot that precisely cuts and aligns the pipes, or a cleaning service that puts an autonomous vacuum cleaning robot to work in the living room, while the human dusts and straightens up the bedroom. In both cases the jobs will be done more quickly, and potentially better, but the robots will be co-workers not competition. Or, in our own business – you might see a security robot patrolling the parking garage keeping the employees safe, while the human security officer is helping someone in the lobby, or by the loading dock.
This does mean that there will be displacements and jobs lost to robots. If a plumber working with a robot assistant can do twice as many repairs in a day as a plumber working alone, there will be a need for fewer plumbers. If a cleaning service can do twice as many houses a day, there will be cleaners who are put out of work. This is an inevitable result of the introduction of new technology. In the late 1800’s if you wanted a clean house, you probably had a full time housekeeper. Then along came the electric sweeper, then the vacuum cleaner, the automatic dish washer, the clothes dryer, and so forth. Now, if you want to hire it out, you might have someone come in for a half a day each week. Over the last hundred years, tens of thousands of maids, house-cleaners, and ‘daily help’ have been put out of work. But it was not as wholesale lay-offs, in spite of futurists predicting two billion people out of work.
The drivers of acceptance will not be the new technology, as always the drivers will be social. For an example, look at automobiles. The automatic transmission was one of the first technological upgrades to the automobile. Introduced in the early 1940’s, it was met with skepticism, uncertainty, and reluctance. How could a machine do a better job than a trained human, can I trust it to put the car in the right gear? It took over a decade for automatics to outsell manuals, and as late as 2006, it was reported that up to 15% of buyers still want manual transmissions. If it takes decades for a simple upgrade like an automatic to become accepted, how much longer to build trust and acceptance for a disruptive change like robots.
Trust is key
When it comes to security robots, trust is key. If you have the responsibility of providing security for your customers, you cannot take any chances. So why do we focus on security? The security job is a tricky one that requires a complex mix of judgement, attention to detail, boring repetition, and constant vigilance. To become a good security officer requires meeting stringent requirements, undergoing significant training, and applying a complex skills base. You have to be willing to work long hours doing routine tasks, punctuated by short, stressful incidents. It was one of the 20 most dangerous jobs in the US in 2010, and the pay is not great. So it is challenging for security companies to hire, train, and retain good employees – but they need those employees today. As they gain trust in security robots, they will put them to work. The robots will not do the parts of the job that require human intelligence, judgement and empathy; no, the robots will do the dirty, dull, and dangerous parts of the job. This will free up the human security officers to do what they are best at: providing top notch security, backed up by top notch technology.