In 2016, an AI named AlphaGo succeeded at something most people thought impossible: it beat a human at Go, the traditional Chinese board game known for its hugely complex strategies. Lee Sedol, renowned Go player, predicted lost four out of five matches with the intelligent machine—after predicting he would win all five.
In some ways, this was a matter of time: almost exactly 20 years ago, Deep Blue, another computer program, beat chessmaster Kasparov in a televised game. Now that one of humanity’s most complex games has been mastered by an AI, what’s next? What’s the final frontier? Will robots take our jobs?
The Threat of Automation
A quick Google search can tell you a lot. Not just the results—even the suggestions can provide a revealing look into the collective psyche of a society, our aggregate anxieties and preoccupations. In this case, a search reveals plenty of fear about automation killing jobs. And, to an extent, these fears are justified. In heavy industry, this has been going on for decades. Factories today are more automated than ever and most of the jobs aren’t coming back.
The creep of automation has spread further. The long-promised electric car revolution has, incrementally and bit by bit, brought another sort of automation to the forefront of the global psyche: self-driving cars. Those three words have blue collar workers from pizza delivery drivers to bus drivers to long-haul truckers quaking in their… uh, wheels. Self-driving cars could, at a stroke, drive thousands of jobs into obsolescence. Why hire a human who needs to sleep, eat, and take vacations to drive a truck across the country? Why have your pizzas delivered by a stoned, pimple-faced teenager who can get mugged or get into accidents when an empty car could do it just as well?
Even in our homes, we can see automation eating up jobs. Many households now own quite a few robots—robotic vacuum cleaners and lawn mowers chief among them. No one thinks of the countless maids and gardeners put out of work by these unfeeling, disc-shaped fiends.
For many jobs, the threat of automation is real and imminent. But there’s one area that might still be safe: tech service.
Could Robots Replace Tech Service Jobs?
There are a number of reasons that tech service isn’t a normal service job. It’s specialized, requiring advanced diagnostic skills. It takes place in diverse environments, requiring special skills. It sometimes requires dexterity and flexibility. All of these represent significant barriers to automation.
No matter how smart your robotic technician is, it will still have difficulty communicating with a customer about the problem, especially if that person possesses limited information themselves. When an elderly person’s computer stops working, it’s difficult to ask them if it’s the PCI controller or a problem with their wireless network. Instead, the idea of the problem has to be gleaned from description of the symptoms, which may be vague, inaccurate, or otherwise poorly expressed—think about regional dialects in some European countries and how they may affect a robot technicians ability to understand a problem. A tech needs to ask a question and then ask follow up questions that guide herself and her customer to the correct answer.
Likewise, each job is different. Take a cable box installation. Maybe 50% of the installations happen in apartment buildings, where the wire boxes can usually be found in the basement. But what about outside of cities? One house may have a cable hookup, the next may not. One may have it located in a closet, the next in a spare bedroom, the next outside the house near the power line. Maybe the customer has just purchased the house and doesn’t know what infrastructure it has. In some areas, there is a real possibility that the house was built a very long time ago, before there was cable TV or even electricity.
A long way to go
Just because technology can take care of some jobs doesn’t mean all jobs performed by humans are under attack. Service techs will remain an integral part of the workforce because we haven’t quite figured out how to program that most valuable of resources and skills: intuition. Rather than attempting to replace them with robots, we should instead seek to use robotics to enhance the performance of service techs, enabling them to do their jobs more effectively.