Automation and its socioeconomic effects have been much discussed of late. To pluck out just one recent example, a 2017 report from the McKinsey Global Institute claims that as many as 800 million jobs could eventually give way to automation, as robots and other automated systems displace human workers. Indeed, in many areas, this is already happening. In industrial sectors of the economy like automotive manufacturing, for example, the number of jobs being done by robots is increasing at a rate of 14 percent per year. Self-driving trucks will likely be widespread soon as well. Some companies have even begun experimenting with automating software development.
The total impact of robots, AI, and automation on society and the economy may ultimately prove to be as significant as that of the Industrial Revolution roughly two centuries ago. Robots are clearly better than humans at many things, and businesses can leverage these advantages to reap enormous benefits. Some even say that, properly employed, these advantages will help to create new jobs for humans to do as well.
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In the meantime, here are just five things that robots can do better than humans and what the disparities between humans and machines in these areas may entail for both businesses and workers in the future.
- Unwavering Focus
Sooner or later, even the most diligent workers will get tired. After extended stretches of demanding work, people will need breaks. Even for work that is not physically taxing, mental exhaustion can set in after people have spent enough time trying to maintain focus on their jobs. To combat this exhaustion, they’ll need to take some time to eat, use the bathroom or just generally clear their heads. Without this, the productivity of human workers will suffer.
Machines have no such limitations. As long as their parts are functioning, and they have a source of power, they can keep working virtually without cease. They can also be easily programmed to perform repetitive tasks thousands of times per day if necessary, making them especially useful at simple manual work that humans might find boring.
- Repetitive Strength
Physical exhaustion can also cripple humans’ ability to work. In jobs that require a great deal of heavy lifting or strenuous physical labor, what humans can do will always be subject to some severe limitations.
Robots, however, don’t get tired. They don’t have muscles that grow sore after they’ve lifted too much, and they can lift loads that are far larger and heavier than what any human can dream of carrying. Not only can they carry more weight than humans, they can do so many more times. For industries dependent on the completion of dangerous and strenuous manual work, robots can offer tremendous productivity gains.
- Mass Production
Mass production is the creation of many units of a good—often thousands or millions—for sale in a mass market. Creating many units of the same good typically requires the repeated completion of some set of tasks. Since, as already mentioned, robots are generally much better than humans at maintaining focus and performing repetitive tasks, they can be used to kickstart the mass production of many different goods into a higher gear.
Robots can work much faster than humans can. A series of robots on an automobile assembly line can assemble a car much quicker and with far greater precision than a team of humans can ever hope to do. Once perfected, self-driving vehicles will be able to react to road obstacles much more quickly than humans can. While a human programmer may require time to think about how to structure the code he writes, automated programming software can generate programs that perform specified tasks in virtually the blink of an eye. Examples in other fields can be multiplied endlessly.
- Cost Reduction
Cost reduction is a final, culminating advantage that robots have over human workers. You can think of cost reduction as the one advantage that is ultimately implied by all of the others that we have been discussing.
Robots don’t need to earn a wage. They don’t need to eat, drink, buy clothes, rent an apartment, or pay down a mortgage. While it’s true that robots may require occasional repairs and periodic maintenance, the costs associated with such things are generally far below those that accompany human workers.
On average, employers spend about 20-40 percent of their business revenue on labor costs, the most significant components of which include not only workers’ wages but also fringe benefits like health insurance and other indirect forms of compensation. Machine repair and maintenance costs—even for businesses that make heavy use of robots—do not cost anywhere near as much. The greater the amount of revenue that a company must spend compensating workers, the more money it will be able to save if it can replace those workers with robots.
Robots will also decrease business costs in another critical way. As already discussed above, they have far higher production capacities than humans do because they can work faster and don’t tire. As robots come to be used more commonly in business, companies will thus be able to crank out more units of their products. Therefore, total business costs per unit of product will fall. Not only this but as businesses save money, they will be able to divert more resources to producing better products or improving productivity even further.
The Ever-Present Human Element
As important as many of these advantages are, however, they are far from definitive. After all, there is far more that goes into providing satisfying customer experiences than merely being able to work fast and give your customers tons of cheap goods. Customers also often need care, personalized help, and an empathetic ear. In all of these areas, we humans still tower over our mechanical creations.
The robots may be on the march but given how essential proper customer service is to so many business models, they are not likely to throw humans entirely out of work anytime soon.