To automate, or not to automate? First thoughts

A Glimpse of the Future

Automation and robotics have been making a lot of inroads, lately, and the trend seems unlikely to change.

Unless you live in a particular fringe political neighborhood, you’re aware that the vast majority of those jobs have been taken by automation designed to boost productivity. According to one study conducted by Ball State University that looked at manufacturing job losses in the US between the years 2000 and 2010, 87% of those jobs went to productivity, but only 13% to trade.

Losing one’s job to a robot is far more likely than losing it to workers in Mexico or China. It’s not really a new story. As the Ball State study illustrates, it’s been going on for decades, and not only in manufacturing. An NBC article from several years ago gave a list of jobs that humans could lose to robots in the near future.

The trend is spreading, inevitably. Sometimes it’s a good thing. Astronauts might be sexy, but humans shouldn’t be the first things we send to new places in space. I think I speak for many when I say I’m happy to see Spirit and Opportunity go to Mars before people brave its hazards.

A NASA artist’s conception of the Mars Rover Spirit.

An argument could be made that automation in certain sectors makes things faster, more efficient, and less error-prone. My husband works in a diagnostic lab where processors and stainers perform many routine tests that once were run by hand. An argument could be made that pharmacy automation might be less subject to corruption or error (though there are many ways humans could take advantage if the system isn’t carefully set up and monitored).

This is an automated slide-maker and stainer for a specific laboratory purpose. It delivers consistent results that would be hard to achieve at speed by hand.

But here we start to run into a gray area. There still are things it seems likely robots are a long way from being able to do as well as a skilled, trained human.

My husband, for instance, is still the experienced tech the doctors call upon to quality-check for diagnostic results whenever they do certain kinds of biopsies.

Automated pharmacy equipment from RoboPharma (yes, that’s really their name).

The pharmacy robot may be able to package up pills at the speed of light, but how will it do when you need advice about the best cream to use for the persistent itch you have, or which syrup might work best for your baby’s cough?

I plan to explore this question in more detail next week.

IMAGES: Many thanks to Before It’s News for the “future” graphic, the CNN Money for the graph illustrating the Ball Stat University study, and to Electronicsb2b for the photo of the robotic automotive assembly line. Many thanks to the invaluable Wikipedia for the image of the Mars rover Spirit, to Abbot Labs for the photo of their Cell-Dyn SMS slidemaker and stainer and to RoboPharma for the photo of the automated pharmacy equipment.

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jansgephardt

Kansas City-based Jan S. Gephardt is a writer, artist, and teacher. She makes nationally-recognized paper sculpture and writes sf mystery novels about a sapient police dog.

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