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Robots Stealing Healthcare Jobs?

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A leading technology blog, SingularityHub, recently reported that a Silicon Valley area hospital is announcing layoffs at the same time it begins to employ robots:

El Camino Hospital in Silicon Valley is looking to cut expenses, so they've invested in 19 Aethon TUG robots. These smart carts can haul supplies around the hospital, making deliveries and pickups at a fraction of the costs of human workers. El Camino recently announced that it would further be cutting costs by firing up to 140 workers from its two facilities in Los Gatos and Mountain View.

It should be noted that most of the layoffs are probably not directly related to the decision to use robots. Nonetheless, I think this shows that even healthcare--the one field on which nearly everyone pins hopes for significant job growth--is not immune to automation. It also demonstrates that the economic tradeoff between robots and even relatively low wage/low skill jobs is beginning to tip in favor of the machines.

Economists often speak of "polarization" in the job market. The belief is that technology has primarily impacted middle skill jobs, leaving plenty of high wage opportunities for the well-educated as well as lots of low skill service jobs with very low wages. As I've been arguing here, I think this is what has been happening so far--but it will not continue to be true indefinitely. Automation will push up into the high wage areas via technologies like specialized artificial intelligence/expert systems, while it penetrates lower skill job sectors with more affordable robotic technologies. In general, I think economists have a serious problem with analyzing past data, determining a trend, and then assuming it will continue basically forever. Technologies change rapidly.

In spite of this news, I think that healthcare will certainly remain one of the most promising areas for future employment. However, the same cannot be said for other lower skill jobs in the commercial arena. While delivering medical supplies in a hospital may not be an especially high-skill job, it is certainly not an unimportant job. If robots can be trusted to autonomously navigate crowded hospital corridors to deliver medical supplies in a timely fashion, then they can and will be used in other commercial settings like warehouses and retail stores.

In fact, CNET News reported that Wal-Mart was already looking into the use of inventory robots back in 2005. These robots would have prowled the aisles at night taking complete store inventories--a job that is, of course, currently done by workers. One has to wonder how long it will be until Wal-Mart and its competitors begin to look seriously at robots in a number of work areas. Jobs involving shelf-stocking, inventory control, and materials moving are all likely to be susceptible at some point.

The scary thing is that for many workers these are really the jobs of last resort. This is where people who lose good jobs in manufacturing or other areas often end up. What options will these people have if even these jobs are someday much less plentiful?


Martin Ford is the author of The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future (available from Amazon or as a FREE PDF download) and has a blog at econfuture.wordpress.com .