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Here’s How Robots Could Help Save Jobs

June 14, 2016, 7:54 PM UTC
Baxter at Rethink Robotics
BOSTON, MA - FEBRUARY, 2: Baxter picks up objects and places them in a basket using a vacuum cup gripper attached to its arm during a demonstration at Rethink Robotics in Boston, Mass. 2013. (Photo by Jessica Rinaldi/For The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Photograph by Jessica Rinaldi — The Washington Post via Getty Images

Robots might be getting better at performing tasks like carrying heavy equipment and tracking store inventory, but that doesn’t mean they will be replacing humans at work anytime soon.

In some cases, robots can help save jobs.

That’s the opinion of Melonee Wise, the CEO of Fetch Robotics, a company that builds robots that follow warehouse workers around facilities and act as autonomously moving storage containers. Wise spoke on Tuesday along with a panel of robotics experts at a Bloomberg technology conference in San Francisco.

Wise admitted that “people are concerned” the rise of robots could mean less jobs for humans, but she thinks that belief is a “misnomer.” In the case of her company’s warehouse robots, those devices “enable people to keep jobs longer,” she posited.

Warehouse workers with bad backs and knees don’t have to walk around huge facilities as much with robot helpers following them and carrying more supplies than what the workers can handle themselves. Because the robots carry warehouse inventory, the workers don’t need to zig-zag back and forth the warehouse as often as they would without them.

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She said that the robots cut down on the wear and tear of the human body, which typically occurs for these blue-collar warehouse workers and thus prolongs their careers. Additionally, facilities that use robots tend to be more efficient and are less likely to get shut down because of their increased productivity. Even if one worker loses a job because of a robot, that’s better than 40 workers losing their jobs if a warehouse gets closed, she explained.

Of course, Wise runs a robot company, so it’s likely she disagrees with the notion that more robots mean less jobs. But her opinion is noteworthy given the perception that robots have become so advanced in recent years that they stand to outperform humans in many tasks and dramatically alter the workforce.

Cheaper hardware and emerging technologies have enabled manufacturers and companies to develop robots faster than ever. Tessa Lau, co-founder of robotics company Savioke, said 3D printing has allowed her company to develop prototypes in days as opposed to months. Still, robots are far from commonplace.

Wise said there are probably only around 1.5 millions robots that have been deployed and are active in the world. Many robotic companies are developing robots in “structured environments,” like warehouses in which the environments are more mapped out and easier for a robot to orient itself in, she said. Within “unstructured environments,” like city streets for example, it’s much harder for a robot to learn the surroundings amidst many different variables and operate efficiently.

However, the work that companies like Google (GOOG) are doing on self-driving cars has the possibility to create a spill-over effect to robotic companies, and it could create a wave of “smarter” robots that can function better in environments and conditions that are less predictable, she explained.

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Popular movies and television shows like The Jetsons portray human-like robots that look “deceptively easy” to create, suggested Lau. The reality is that “it is really, really hard” to make robots, much less the ones dreamed up by Hollywood executives. We are in the beginnings of a robotics revolution, Lau said, but it will be “slow and incremental.”