Issue #6: Robots can displace farm workers — but help combat climate change
More topics: Amazon's driverless truck fleet, Toyota's table wiping robot & digital jobs in demand
This newsletter is about all the ways modern technology changes work, jobs, and the labor market. I’m a firm believer that in the long run, the benefits outweigh the downsides of technological transformation. For instance, as I’m writing these lines, I’m on a train leaving Berlin towards another country to work from there for a week. The internet connection is solid, and thanks to new tools and devices, work has become more flexible and pleasant. Fewer and fewer office workers are forced to sit in grey cubicles or care about old-fashioned markers of the office status like the corner office.
Change is always scary and painful for those who fear losing their jobs, and they do have a reason to feel uncomfortable! In this issue, I cover how farming might displace nearly half of the workers due to robotics. Amazon is hoping to do something similar by acquiring a fleet of autonomously driving trucks. However, nobody knows what will emerge after these jobs have been transformed, just as nobody knew 30 years ago how easy remote work would be. But there will certainly be something new emerging. How do you feel about the future of work?
Headlines you shouldn’t miss
FAIRWORK New report! Work in the Planetary Labour Market: The research project Fairwork (University of Oxford) analyzed 17 global freelance and microwork platforms like Upwork, Amazon MTurk, and Fiverr regarding their labor conditions. 12 platforms provided labor protection mechanisms, 5 provided terms of service that did not require workers to waive key rights to legal challenges.
VODAFONE INSTITUTE Homeworking: Seasonality has great impact on carbon savings: The Vodafone Institute found out that work from home can positively affect CO2 emissions — but only if adapted for seasonality. In Northern countries, office work in the wintertime is more favorable as the energy demand for heating is higher than the energy expenses for the average train commute. In Southern countries, it’s the reverse effect: Due to many air conditioners in private spaces, it is more favorable to work in the office during this season.
NPR A New Way To Understand Automation: Star economist Daron Acemoglu published a new study with co-author Pascual Restrepo on automation. They argue that automation was the driving force in the last 30 years to put people out of jobs. Yet, Acemoglu stresses that new technologies mostly have two effects: Job displacement AND productivity. Businesses and governments, however, have fallen short in making productivity gains available to more workers.
TECHCRUNCH Oyster, an HR platform for distributed workforces, snaps up $50M on a $475M valuation: The future of work will be remote — at least in part. The investment the startup Oyster received indicates a long-term shift toward the trend. Oyster helps plan and administer all elements of the recruiting and onboarding process for employees who work outside of a company’s resident country.
FORBES Attention, IT Professionals: Robots Are Not Trying To Steal Your Jobs: Automation is likely to reduce certain tasks — but not displace human workers as a whole. It will be a driver for the next wave of economic transformation. Employers should allow workers to engage with new technologies and optimize the deployment for favorable work conditions.
Robots can displace farm workers — but help combat climate change
Tech has been transforming the agricultural sector for years: Smart farming takes advantage of progress in sensors in recent years. The small devices can measure humidity and other markers in the soil, which helps farmers optimize water, herbicides, and fertilizers.
Gradually, robots are entering the industry. They can treat plant diseases with ultraviolet light and reduce the use of fungicides by 90 percent. Robots can pick and package the harvest and map the terrain. Modern electric robots can replace Fuel-powered farming machines. While CO2 emissions would drop, the new progress in farming threatens 40 percent of existing farming jobs. At the same time, the demand for skilled workers who can main the new robots will increase, but not at the same rate as the job displacement is likely to happen.
With fewer herbicides at use and fewer people employed in the sector, food could become cheaper.
Experts fear that the robot revolution in farming will threaten small farms that don’t have the means to purchase efficient robots. Additionally, there are security concerns: Hacked robots could injure workers if instructed maliciously.
Amazon is preparing for a driverless truck fleet
E-commerce giant Amazon has placed an order to purchase 1,000 driverless trucks from AI startup Plus.ai and is considering buying a 20 percent share at the California-based company, according to Bloomberg.
Although self-driving vehicles have never reached the necessary level to operate without the assistance or overview of a human, many experts believe that the great leap is close. However, in most cases, AI has failed to recognize various risks in a dynamic and unstructured environment that everyday traffic is.
Amazon has been investing in several companies working on driverless cars. While the companies revenue has been skyrocketing during the pandemic, the demand for convenient shipping requires many workers. As a result, Amazon announced to create dozens of thousands of jobs in the US, Canada, and Great Britain this year - mostly in the logistics department.
By introducing driverless trucks, Amazon could not only optimize its delivery speed but get rid of one inconvenience: Warehouse workers and drivers have been pushing for more labor rights and attempted to unionize in the US this week. In Germany, the biggest trade union for the service sector, Ver.di, asked workers to strike. Amazon has received a lot of criticism for its treatment of low-wage workers, and automation seems to be the solution the juggernaut is opting for.
Toyota develops a robot that can wipe tables
What is typical about tabletops at home? Often, there are plenty of objects on them like glasses. And tables tend to have a shiny surface. And this is what has troubled computer vision for years: Transparent and reflective surfaces have confused AI for a long time. While the human brain can understand the spatial concept of an object which is transparent yet three-dimensional, robots failed to grab it.
And this is where the Toyota robot comes in: Wiping tables, the machine manages not only to recognize but move objects correctly despite their reflective or transparent material. Researchers developed a novel 3D training method for this purpose.
Beyond that, Toyota claims that their robots learn to manage in an unpredictable environment - like an average household.
Why does this matter? Max Bajracharya, vice president of robotics at TRI, explains:
"Our goal is to build robotic capabilities that amplify, not replace, human abilities."
This sentence is quite telling. With those new capabilities, robots working with modern machine learning will be equipped to perform even more tasks and expand their actions beyond a narrow set of situations. This implies that certain human skills won’t be in demand anymore, and a hybrid work environment alongside robots is perhaps closer than we think.
Opinion: The government should provide more support for workers to find the jobs of the future
Bloomberg columnist Noah Smith asks one of the most important questions of the labor transformation: “Where Will You Go When a Robot Takes Your Job?”
Smith, former assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University, believes that one of the main challenges of technological transformation is specialization. In the first half of the 20th century, farmworkers could transfer to factory jobs. Later, factory workers may have moved up to office work. Many jobs didn’t require specific training — learning on the job was good enough if you had decent common sense.
With the gradual shift towards more specialization, the leisure economy has been the go-to place for many unskilled workers and people who just searched for a simple way to make money. Covid disrupted this sector: Hotels stayed empty for months, restaurants closed, and automation threatened many low-skilled jobs in the leisure economy. To match job-seekers with fitting jobs, Smith proposes changes in the information governmental bodies like the Bureau of Labor Statistics provide:
“First of all, this website should become a mobile app. Second, the government should pay select employers to provide detailed information, including video tutorials, about how to get each of these jobs, as well as vetting free content from YouTube channels, Quora, and other online sources. Third, there should be a map, showing where these jobs are located.”
Smith concludes that it will be smart strategies that will make workers embrace technological progress. He is certain that humanity will not run out of work as new industries emerge, but for the time being, governmental information and support in training and education are necessary.
Number of the week: 30 percent more job openings for digital experts
German market research group Index analyzed 400.000 job openings and found out that digital experts have been highly in demand during the first quarter of 2021. In total, they registered a growth of 30 percent in comparison to last year. However, the demand is clustered in very few sectors. The jobs with the highest growth in demand are:
Cloud computing (+54%)
Online marketing (+37%)
Social media marketing (+33%)
Digital project management (+30%)
In some sectors, the demand dropped, as businesses had to cut research & development activities. The jobs with the highest drop in demand are:
Virtual reality & augmented reality (-9%)
Digital transformation (-11%)
3D printing (-28%)
Recommendation of the week: ‘Hired by an algorithm,’ the newest episode of the In Machines We Trust podcast
If you’re searching for a job online, artificial intelligence will likely analyze your profile. Algorithms decide which job seeker shall be recommended to a potential employer. However, AI reproduces the biases that exist in the real world and recommends men more often than women, because based on the data, men are more aggressive in sending out applications. The newest episode of MIT Technology Review’s podcast In Machines We Trust explains the implications of algorithms in the recruiting process and how LinkedIn solved its bias problem with more AI.
Tweet of the week: More confidence among workers
Future of work expert Andrew Spence sees more confidence among workers:
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