Why won't robots take over

What robots could really do

Amazon has 45,000 robots in use. The number of industrial robots is expected to rise to 2.9 million by 2019. Automation could cut 2 million workers in Austria. Including 56 percent of the jobs in manufacturing. Forecasts that make you tremble before digitization, automation and Industry 4.0. But what is it, actually, about the fear of robotics? Where would the robots be used and where can they be found today?

The McKinsey Global Institute took a close look at the numbers: Many millions of jobs around the world could fall victim to automation, most of them in China. 395.2 million jobs could be lost there with consistent automation. On average, 60 percent of occupations include activities that could be automated. The agricultural sector offers the greatest potential worldwide. Here, 50 percent of the work could be done through automation - that affects 328.9 employees. Only production offers more automation options - 64 percent of the work could be automated there, but fewer people would be affected with 234.7 million employees than in agriculture - or the catering sector with 66 percent automation potential, in which 53, 9 million employees would be affected.

This leads to the question: What can robots actually do? How many positions could actually be completely replaced by them, where would they help instead? After all, industry in particular emphasizes that version 4.0 is not easy to buy. Mending weak points, increasing productivity - these aspects can be dealt with through automation. People should be supported by machines so that the physical strain is kept within limits and continues to decrease. However, the question still remains: Are there jobs that are specifically threatened by robotics where they can dispute jobs? And which activities can be carried out specifically?

The work of robots began in industry and is still the most widely used here today. The mechanical assembly line workers mainly take on dangerous and stupid tasks. Data evaluation is much more precise, and nobody can get injured when handling heavy and hot metal parts. It is also very useful in warehouses and dispatch points: Amazon's Kiva, for example, can lift up to 340 kg and still travel up to 5.5 kilometers per hour - that makes it easier and safer for people. So it is above all the physical activities that always follow the same pattern.

If, on the other hand, it is a matter of reacting to unforeseen problems apart from pure if-then cases, the person has to take action. All discretionary decisions that do not follow 100 percent programmable criteria are the responsibility of human workers, including the monitoring and maintenance of the machines. What is being said about Industry 4.0 applies here: It should support people, not rationalize them away.

“It looks completely different when it comes to design work. Every product goes through the mind and hand of a design team as the first step. It often took many years to get from the idea to the first prototype. Software already does a large part of the work here: 3D models, for example - once created - can be changed again and again, machines such as the 3D printer output the pieces at the end. Above all, supposedly simple processes between the individual interfaces, which are necessary prerequisites for the correct creation of print products, can be automated. Here the machine certainly has a decisive advantage over humans. All work steps to be carried out are created sequentially, so that everything from the calibration of the machine for the material to be printed to the control of the color space and the setting up of suitable color profiles to the machine quality control is automated. The purely technical requirements can thus be taken over by robotics, but the creative remains with humans. "

All that the imagination needs remains human labor. After all, artificial intelligence can learn and constantly absorb new programs, but it is difficult to think freely. For example, there is no robot that can paint pictures based on its imagination. All are based on calculations, but creativity cannot be calculated. And the self-learning, intelligent robot is also reaching its limits. This is shown by the research and various experiments from which Microsoft's "chatbot" Tay originated. Originally a friendly girl who, by chatting, quickly turned right-wing extremist and after a few hours only wrote anti-Semitic tweets. Humanity is just a matter for people, it is not programmable and cannot be broken down to fixed parameters.

It looks different with calculations. This is where the great opportunity and the great potential of any machine lie. They are based on numbers, are controlled by information technology with 0 and 1 - both robots and software thus ensure error-free processes, leaving no room for interpretation that the machine could not do anything with anyway. This is where research also sees a great opportunity: because while people make mistakes, calculate things incorrectly and error is definitely part of it, this cannot happen to robots. In addition, these are the annoying, stupid tasks that people usually do not like - this offers more space for the things that people enjoy.

In the end, digitization and the use of robots and machines above all offer the opportunity to get rid of stupid, difficult and dangerous work. As noted by McKinsey, the potential lies primarily in the agricultural sector and manufacturing. Even if that sounds threatening at first, it has to be said that at the company Amazon mentioned at the beginning, in addition to 15,000 robots, almost 80,000 new employees are also hired every year. The machine workers can still only function with human support. According to leaders, it should stay that way - and as already discussed, people cannot disappear from offices or factories. Humanity, the ability to react and the talent for improvisation are simply too central for that.

This article was created in cooperation with the external editor Christian Mahling.