Fascinating (and Worrying) Developments in Automation

Society’s approach to automation requires delicacy. The automated tools can be captivating to watch in action, the process can spare workers immeasurable injury and danger, and automation is no small part of why worker productivity rose roughly 70% from 1993 to 2011. Yet you probably didn’t hear the pervasive stat that automation cost the US manufacturing sector millions of jobs from TopTenz first.

There are a number of reports that over the next 10 years, the number of lost jobs could climb to an economically devastating 73 million or so. Now on the other hand, there are groups such as the Economic Forum that forecast how automation will create tens of millions more jobs than it wipes out. However the gains/losses end up balancing out, the economically viable implementation of automation is still one of the most significant challenges facing society. 

10. Einride/Coca-Cola

Much of the attention regarding automation fear has been focused on the fate of commercial truck drivers. There are roughly 1.8 million livelihoods and $125 billion annually at stake. Since Uber’s first success with automated vehicles in 2016, it’s seemed like only a matter of time. An event in Sweden might just have been the long-anticipated sign that the time has arrived. 

In December 2019, Coca-Cola European Partnership and the food retailer Axfood announced that they would use the “autonomous electric transports” by the then three year-old company Einride to haul freight between their warehouses in the Stockholm area. Reportedly these vehicles can haul loads of 26 tons and have a range of roughly 124 miles. Fortunately this doesn’t represent a direct threat to employment rates at the moment, as the vehicles still have human drivers that can remotely control them if needed.   

9. Skyline Robotics

The washing of windows on a high-rise building certainly looks dangerous, but the process has been perfected to a point where by 2014 an average of only one window washer died on the job in America a year. But that’s one death too many and from a business perspective it’s still a job that has such high turnover that the washers demand high wages (the median is about $27 per hour for an experienced washer, though). Thus the Israeli company Skyline Robotics rolled out a new machine in early 2019 that kept humans from having to go out on the scaffolding. 

Window-washing robots released by Skyline do not use any chemicals except for water with all minerals filtered. Skyline has addressed concerns that it will drive people out of work by hiring the very window-washers whose careers were threatened to oversee the use of the robots. The profit-potential of this form of automation has surprisingly been fairly limited, only reducing the costs roughly 10 percent. But when there is money to be saved, innovation follows. 

8. Walmart

In March 2018, it was reported that Walmart was testing robots in 50 of its stores. Their main purpose was scanning the shelves for inventory three times per day. For optimal scanning results, the robots were over six feet tall. This led to a concern by the manufacturer that the robots would need to be designed to appear friendly, including by affixing extra lights to them. However, the biggest problem seemed to be that teenagers would mess with them. 

The success of the experiment seemed to be borne out by the fact that in April 2019 CNN reported Walmart would be massively expanding the program. The 50 stores that used shelf-scanning robots would be expanded to 350, while robot janitors would be expanded to 1,860 stores. All the while, Walmart reassured their employees that the robots were meant to ease their burden instead of replacing them, leaving the employees with more time to interact with the customers instead of performing strenuous, repetitive tasks. If it turns out that reducing employee headcount actually is the goal, then if customers and employees pushed back and convinced management to remove robots it wouldn’t be the first time in retail that commerce stopped the march of technology. For example, IKEA and CVS both removed self-checkout kiosks from stores over layoff backlash.   

7. Heliograf

An employee doesn’t need to work in a blue collar or service industry for their job to potentially be replaceable by automation.  In 2016, the Washington Post had an artificial intelligence program called Heliograf churn out 300 articles on the Rio de Janeiro Olympics. By September 2017, it had produced 850 articles. That’s not to say that it was an overwhelming success by online standards. The hundreds of articles collectively brought the Washington Post about 500,000 views.  But considering that they were generated without any human effort, it was still a bargain. 

Heliograf now has a bit of competition. As of February 2019, Forbes has Bertie, Bloomberg magazine has Cyborg, etc. As of July 2019, the practice had been noted as spreading to Chinese news sources. But surely we at TopTenz don’t have to worry about being replaced… right?   

6. Spyce

According to a study released by Career Cast in 2015, being a line cook is the third worst job in America on the basis of pay rate, advancement opportunities, hours, and physical strain. So despite the desperation that drives most people that take that job, the temptation to automate it is understandable. One of the highest profile recent attempts closed for remodeling in Boston on November 22, 2019 with plans to expand along the East Coast.  

As shown in Spyce’s videos, the automated cooks largely are tumblers into which custom amounts of ingredients are dropped, allowing for the food to be cooked more evenly by rotating it the whole time. Servers take over to deliver the food to the customers. Who knows how long before the human element is streamlined out of the process. 

5. Self-Flying Airtaxi

With the growing proliferation of remote-controlled drone aircraft in militaries around the world, it was only a matter of time before the technology was applied to passenger travel. There is already a looming pilot shortage, between the number of pilots that are aging into mandatory retirement and the high cost of getting enough training to become a licensed commercial pilot (which in 2013 went from requiring 250 hours to 1,500 in response to a particularly bad crash near Buffalo, New York). The technology has advanced far into the prototype stage. 

On January 23, 2019, Boeing announced that an experimental autonomous passenger vehicle had completed a successful test. Not only had the vessel been entirely electric, it was capable of straight vertical takeoff, which was especially impressive for an object 30 feet in length with a 28-foot wingspan. Its maximum flight range is 50 miles. Boeing did not disclose its maximum load capacity, but did mention that another prototype was capable of lifting a 500-pound load.  

Unfortunately, if you followed the news during 2019, you know Boeing’s reputation has been severely tarnished. Less than two months after the successful test of the electric autonomous flying vehicle, the production of the Boeing 737 was halted because of a pair of crashes, and in a two day period alone Boeing’s market value dropped $11 billion. Any implementation of new flight technology by Boeing will surely be extremely cautious at the very least.    

4. Colossus

Speaking of high-profile disasters of 2019, on April 15 Paris’s famous Notre Dame Cathedral caught fire. The cathedral’s roof and one of the spires were destroyed, and the stone walls were severely damaged. Even by December the damage was still too severe to hold Christmas Mass in the building. Still, there was a new technology rolled out that saved the building from total ruin and prevented the fire from spreading to neighboring buildings while ensuring that not a single firefighter was killed or injured. 

The Colossus is a roughly half-ton (despite being only two feet tall) tread-mounted robot that’s part of the Thermite product line for Howe Howe Technologies. It’s so powerful that it can haul another thousand pounds of gear for a maximum of five to six hours, though its maximum speed is only 2.2 miles-per-hour. It wasn’t exactly a pioneer, as similar robots have been used in China since 2017. Still, considering that these robots cost as much as $310,000 each, it’ll be awhile before often cash-strapped firefighting services will be able to replace humans with them en masse. 

3. Cape’s Police Drone Surveillance

Those who are worried that the US lives a surveillance state won’t be reassured by this entry. On February 18, 2019, it was reported that San Diego, California was using drones surveillance for its law enforcement. By that point, the drones had assisted in 21 arrests, averaging approximately an arrest for every four hours of flight time. And these have not just been for petty crimes, either. (It also includes charges of things like vehicular assault.) Considering that it’s limited to flying a one-mile radius from the headquarters in Chula Vista, it goes to show just how much crime the operation can potentially record. 

As with Colossus, despite the success of the San Diego police drone program, it’s not the first of its kind. It’s not certain who that was, but one of the lead contenders is the Waukesha County police in Wisconsin. They’ve been using them since at least 2016.    

2. SRI International/Go Between

While drones are used for relatively long-range surveillance, there’s the issue of how well automation will function for law enforcement that requires direct confrontation with a suspect. In May 2019, the non-profit SRI International announced it was testing robots to perform routine traffic stops. It’s remotely used to address the pulled over driver and its functions include printing up and extending a rod to drop tickets into vehicles. If the suspect tries to drive away during the procedure, the robot has spikes it can drop to disable the tires. 

You might think that with a job requiring confrontations with dangerous criminals that the current design looks much too non-intimidating to be of any use. You have to consider that in truth, the most dangerous job in law enforcement is traffic work, and that stress and depression are more dangerous for officers than direct confrontations with suspects. Even if patrol robots can only be made to deal with the most safe and routine traffic enforcement, their ability to keep officers out of risky traffic environments and cut down on their stress means they have the potential to save many lives. 

1. Military

The military has been using robots for bomb disposal since at least 2000, most prominently during the Iraq War, but what about using robots instead of soldiers on the ground? The closest this has come to reality so far was reported on October 7, 2019 by Science Daily. A facility in Pennsylvania tested humanoid robots for effectiveness in clearing out traffic impediments and searching objects, such as performing bag checks. Ten years in development, the robots were designed to be able to identify targets such as tree limbs without needing direct input. The prototype is still able to receive vocal input to better deal with complex situations while it keeps human soldiers out of harm’s way. 

As far automation with lethal capacity goes, in September 2019 the Norwegian arms contractor Kongsberg claimed that it had created an unmanned anti-tank rocket launcher by combining the Estonian THeMIS remote robot with American Javelin missiles. It is still human operated but it has independent sensors and Kongsberg claims that it is trying to automate out the need for a human to operate and fire it. Really though, do we want the robots to be the ones deciding when to fire? 

Dustin Koski also wrote the fantasy book A Tale of Magic Gone Wrong.

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