Preparing for the Global and Local Effects of Automation

 MetalCow Robotics is a robotics competition team founded to enable high-school students to apply theories and concepts to real-world situations. MetalCow recently competed in the Midwest Regionals. (Photo: MetalCow Robotics)

MetalCow Robotics is a robotics competition team founded to enable high-school students to apply theories and concepts to real-world situations. MetalCow recently competed in the Midwest Regionals. (Photo: MetalCow Robotics)

The Agricultural Revolution, Industrial Revolution, and Information Age all shifted the workforce forever, creating and altering jobs. Along the way, fear danced with hopes and dreams to create polarizing perceptions of a new world.

Now, many feel automation will usher in the next workforce revolution. Numerous popular outlets report that robotics are on track to make a significant impact in the next decade. For example, Forrester’s 2016 report indicates that automated robots will eliminate 6 percent of all U.S. jobs.

Even on the software end, massive economic ripples are spreading. Illinois State University finance and economics professor Alan Cring notes that high trading volume software can see where market prices are milliseconds into in the future.

“The way it works is, these programs will watch what the market’s traders are assessing and will see these signals and signs,” Cring said.

Cring continued, “For example, you and all of your friends think the price of a stock will go from $3 to $5.” “What these programs will do is, they will watch the behavior of the market around the $3 mark, and if they see this pre-trading sense of what is going on, they will immediately go in, and they will buy at the $3, driving the price up to $5 before  normal traders can even start buying.”

As normal traders arrive, they see $5 instead of $3, since the computers are fast enough within a millisecond and so close to the trading floor, the price jumps in time.

Bloomington’s MetalCow Robotics Lead Mentor Matt Hughes does not subscribe to the gloom and doom of automation. Founded in 2011, MetalCow Robotics is a Bloomington-based robotics high school-competition team for students to apply theories and concepts to real-world situations.

Hughes implores everyone to realize that automation advancements do not signal America becoming “I Robot.”

“Concepts like artificial intelligence seem to be moving things in the direction of that life-like android, but that too is just the evolution and advancement of the programming and controls that go to the goal of increased productivity and worker safety,” Hughes said.

Fully functional robots are already present in many situations. For instance, Robot Roomba Vacuums clean houses with intelligence sensors and collect data. Furthermore, Panasonic and the University of Tokyo recently created a robot arm capable of rinsing any dish and placing it into the dishwasher. Robotics are also becoming more prevalent in warehouses and assembly lines.

Hughes notes that these advancements are to be embraced, not feared.

“Most robotics and technology changes bring an increased need for training. In general, physical labor skills, while they don’t go away, are replaced with the need to understand programming, machine setup, etcetera,” Hughes said. “Actually, to some degree, there is an increased need for hand skills that cannot be automated.”

Overall, Hughes believes fully functional robots are a net positive in the local and national economy. He feels that the drawbacks of change are the same humanity has conquered throughout other massive workforce changes.

“The benefits of fully functional robots will be increased productivity, worker safety, and hopefully the overall quality of life,” Hughes said.

To fully capitalize on robotics’ potential, he feels schools must place a premium on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

“Robotics is actually the combination of many disciplines and is actually a very general and broad subject area that covers all kinds of applications,” Hughes said. “I think it is more important for schools to focus on the basics of STEM education: math, science, physics, programming. etcetera.”

Hughes continued, “You cannot just jump into robotics without mastering the basics first.”

Stuart Stalter