Batteries not included

How will robots change the future of work?
By Todd Humber
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 03/09/2015

I still remember the first real robot I ever saw — it was orange. Not a bright orange, but that dull industrial orange that doesn’t seem to exist anywhere outside a factory setting.

It was terrifying — sparking and hissing and oh-so-efficient at doing its job, which was spot-welding the frame of a brand new 1984 Dodge Caravan that was winding its way down the assembly line at the Chrysler plant in Windsor, Ont. I was 12, and my dad was taking me on a tour of his workplace.

I recall thinking how cool it was, and that it wouldn’t be long until every job was done by robots as humans spent all their time relaxing on the beach — perhaps by the futuristic year 2000.

Well, my timing was a bit off. It’s 2015, and robots haven’t taken over — but that possibility is inching closer, as outlined in one of this issue’s cover stories. (See “Rise of the robots,” page 1.) The same Windsor Assembly Plant I toured is, as I write this, in the midst of a $2 billion overhaul that will see 822 new robots installed.

And it’s not just factories employing robots. News editor Liz Bernier just came back from a trip to New York City where she was greeted by a robotic porter — known as Yobot — in the lobby of the Yotel. Yobot’s job is to take guests’ luggage and store it.

The photo we chose for the cover features Pepper, which goes above and beyond just lifting and moving things around. The 1.2-metre tall robot sells Nespresso coffee machines at stores in Japan, and its manufacturer — Softbank — claims it can understand up to 80 per cent of conversations. It costs 198,000 Yen, or about $2,100 Cdn, plus monthly fees. And it doesn’t charge commission.

Even Barbie is getting into the game — Mattel is introducing “Hello Barbie” which can actually hold a two-way conversation and, since it’s connected to the cloud, her conversational ability is only expected to improve over time.

Tmsuk makes a reception/guide robot that can greet visitors in the lobby and take them to an elevator, or provide directions on how to get around an office tower.

But some jobs must be robot proof, right? It’s not like a machine could write a news story, could it? Turns out it can. A company called Narrative Science has been doing it for years. Here’s a sample, from a story posted Feb. 18 on Forbes:

“Intuit is expected to book a wider loss than a year ago when it reports second-quarter earnings on Thursday, February 19, 2015. Analysts are expecting a loss of 26 cents per share, down from a loss of 10 cents per share a year ago.

“The consensus estimate is up from three months ago when it was a loss of 32 cents, but hasn’t changed over the past month. Analysts are projecting earnings of $1.94 per share for the fiscal year. Revenue is projected to eclipse the year-earlier total of $782 million by 1%, finishing at $787 million for the quarter. For the year, revenue is projected to roll in at $4.34 billion.”

OK, so it won’t win a Pulitzer. But it’s pretty stunning that Narrative Science’s software and artificial intelligence can scrape this kind of information out of press releases and data sources and come up with a coherent, grammatically correct and accurate story.

All this technology is very cool and very 2015. But it does cause one to pause and wonder about the future of work. Not long before he passed away, my grandfather took me on a tour of the plant where he toiled for more than 30 years.

It was the now-shuttered PPG factory in Oshawa, Ont., that made glass for General Motors, among other companies. He pointed to a line where he once worked on the massive windows that went into the Canada Post building in downtown Toronto that eventually became the Air Canada Centre.

“In my day, more than 70 people worked on that line,” he said.

On the day we toured the factory, there were just two people there — one feeding raw material into a giant machine that ran the length of a city block, and one on the other end removing the nearly finished product.

It will be interesting to watch the impact of robots over the coming decades on the workforce and society — 2025 has been identified as a potential tipping point year.

For now, all we can say is, “Yah. Robots are cool.” And they are doing a lot of work better, more efficiently and safer than their human counterparts.

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