The Roboticist’s Moral Imperative

It’s time to address the elephant in the room – jobs. First, I must confess that I was wrong to casually dismiss this issue in past posts. More than the technology itself, for automation to be successful, we need it to enhance (not destroy) human society. If one-third of the workforce is displaced then we have failed.


The past week, I participated in the RoboBusiness conference in Silicon Valley. I think all of us were blown away by how far the industry has come in the 12 years since the founding of the event. The economics speaks for itself, from $340 million investment in 2014 to over $1.4 billion last year, which is expected to triple in 2016 with the exits of Cruise Automation, Otto and Flexport. At the same time, not everything is so rosy. Poul Martin Møller, the Chief Robotics Officer of Denmark, shared with me war stories of robot implementation, with human orderlies (below), “clogging robot charging stations with feces.”


According to the World Economic Forum this past January, robots and artificial intelligence will displace 5 million jobs over the next five years in 15 first world countries. In the past, robot industry professionals (including myself) have claimed that many new jobs will be created servicing the rise in automation.  However, the data shows otherwise as it assumes a total loss of 7 million jobs, offset by a gain of 2 million new positions. The WEF assessment highlights the challenges posed by modern technologies that are automating and making redundant multiple human tasks, from manufacturing to healthcare.

With the International Labor Organization, part of the United Nations, already forecasting an increase in global unemployment of 11 million by 2020, the size of the additional job losses is sobering. Two-thirds of the projected losses are expected to fall in the office and administrative sectors as smart machines take over more routine tasks. The “Future of Jobs” report concluded that jobs would be displaced in every industry, although the impact would vary considerably with the biggest negative losses likely to be in healthcare, reflecting the rise of telemedicine, followed by energy and financial services.

At RoboBusiness, I met with the head of Target’s automation team and saw a plethora of indoor logistic technologies, including many I wrote about last week. One company that I missed in my post was Magazino, a Siemens next47 Investment. Siemens introduced Magazino on stage as an example of the types of companies it is funding through its new incubator, next47.  According to next47’s acting head, Siemens CTO Siegfried Russwurm, the incubator will invest up to  $1 billion of capital in emerging technologies like robotics and automation.

“Siemens itself was a startup in 1847—founded in a rear courtyard in Berlin,” said Joe Kaeser, president and CEO of Siemens AG. “With next47, we’re living up to our company founder’s ideals and creating an important basis for fostering innovation as we continue Siemens’ development.”

Unlike typical logistic products, such as autonomous indoor rovers that bring goods to people (or pickers), Magazino’s Toru robot picks the items directly off of the shelves. Today, Toru only works with things that are rectangles of a given size, like books and boxes which happens to be 70% of all online orders.  According to the company, the abilities of its robot are “similar to those of humans,” except it can work 24/7 non-stop without healthcare, pay increases or any other human inconveniences.  Magazino is already working with a German online book seller and is in discussions to successfully deploy in the USA.  So what will happen to 850,000 warehousing jobs in America eventually?

In the past we have claimed that these workers will be retrained for “creative” human jobs freed up by robots. However, this logic is deeply flawed as over 60% of Americans over the age of 27 do not have any post high school degree, with close to 40 million citizens whom have not even graduated high school. These hardworking, but uneducated, people make up our unskilled manual labor force. Based upon this data, one could surmise that the reason why they work in a warehouse is because they are not academically inclined.  And we have yet to discuss trucking, taxis, and construction.


I would like to suggest that, as an industry, we do something bold and help organized labor by self-regulating our impact.  We adopt a formula of automation that triggers a buy-out plan of human workers so they could receive their pensions years earlier as their jobs are replaced by bolts and gears. At the same time, we invest our profits in STEM and vocational education to train a younger workforce to be successful in the new robotic economy.  We all know that the inevitable autonomous future is on the horizon, and as future investors we will profit with it; however, if a large portion of our human brothers and sisters are left out of this new economy then human society will be no better off than it was with pick axes and rock hammers.

In closing, I saw this morning that I am not the only person thinking about this, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, member of the House of Lords in the United Kingdom, wrote an editorial in today’s Wall Street Journal titled, Rosh Hashana and the Robots.  In it he sermonizes (paraphrased below):

“A new danger to humanity has appeared on the horizon: artificial intelligence.  The futurist Martin Ford wrote last year in “The Rise of the Robots” that humanity has hardly begun to realize how far humans will be displaced from the world of work.

The Hebrew Bible was revolutionary in its understanding not only of God but also of humanity. Finding God, singular and alone, the first monotheists discovered the infinite value of the human person. It is this insight—that every human is in God’s image regardless of color, culture or class—that must take precedence in human economies, societies and states.

Ford [and others] are paraphrasing for the 21st century what the book of Psalms had to say, millennia ago, about people who worship the work of their hands: “Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human’s hands.” When technology becomes idolatry it ceases to be life-enhancing and becomes soul-destroying. The moment humans value things, however intelligent, over people, they embark on the road to ruin.

The two dangers of the 21st century could not be less alike: super-intelligent computers and highly barbaric fanaticism. They will be defeated only by an insistence on the dignity of the human person and the sanctity of human life. That is the message of Rosh Hashana—not only to Jews but to the world.”

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