What jobs will the robots take?

The robots are coming to take our jobs, but which jobs will the robots take? Derek Thompson looks at the future of automation in The Atlantic.

. . . in the past 30 years, software and robots have thrived at replacing a particular kind of occupation: the average-wage, middle-skill, routine-heavy worker, especially in manufacturing and office admin.

Nearly half of American jobs today could be automated in “a decade or two,” according to a new paper discussed in The Economist. That includes retail, transportation, cashiers and counter clerks. (They’ll go even faster if the minimum wage is raised significantly.”

The 10 jobs on the chart have a 99-percent likelihood of being replaced by machines and software, writes Thompson. “They are mostly routine-based jobs (telemarketing, sewing) and work that can be solved by smart algorithms (tax preparation, data entry keyers, and insurance underwriters).”

The least vulnerable to automation are managers and health care and public safety workers.

Thompson concludes: “Machines are better at rules and routines; people are better at directing and diagnosing. But it doesn’t have to stay that way.”

For a cheerier view of the future, check out Are Robots Taking Our Jobs or Making Our Jobs?

Volokh’s Kenneth Anderson sees a future in skilled manual labor as in the “maker” movement.

Computer science majors get the most job offers, reports Forbes. Economics, accounting and engineering majors also are likely to have a job offer before they graduate.

Test certifies job-ready graduates

ACT’s WorkKeys certifies students are ready for work, reports PBS. Employers support it, but few high school students know it exists.

JOHN TULENKO: From the outside, Hoffer Plastics in Elgin, Illinois, looks about the same as it did when it was founded back in 1953. Inside, it’s a different story.

Bill Hoffer is the CEO.

BILL HOFFER, Hoffer Plastics Corporation: We have got job after job that 20 years ago would be a full-time operator. Now it’s a robot.

JOHN TULENKO: There are fewer workers, but they’re required to do more.

BILL HOFFER: They need to be able to read blueprints. They need to follow procedures, document what they’re doing. And that’s all very important.

Pat Hayes, CEO of Fabric Images, doesn’t know what an A in math means. “Where did you go to school? What level of course? Was it accelerated? Was it a college prep course? I don’t know.”

Both Fabric Images and Hoffer Plastics use WorkKeys to assess job candidates’ math, reading and information locating skills. Using workplace scenarios, the exam measures “how well individuals can decipher charts, graphs and other visual information, convert ratios, measurements, and make calculations across a variety of situations, and effectively comprehend memos, instructions and other authentic workplace documents,” says Tulenko. “There are also tests of visual observation and listening comprehension.”

Recent high school graduate Sarah Rohrsen was accepted at a four-year college, but couldn’t afford it. She took a job at Wendy’s. Nine month later, she applied for a job at Hoffer Plastics, did well on WorkKeys and landed a well-paying full-time job with benefits as an inspector.

Test takers can earn a work force readiness certificate called an NCRC that’s respected by employers. Superintendent Jose Torres wants 75 percent of his students to earn a gold certificate in five years.  

JOHN TULENKO: So we went to Elgin High School, a predominantly low-income school where administrators say half the students go directly into the work force, to see how they were doing.

Raise your hand if you have heard of something called an NCRC certificate? No hands. OK.

It was like this in virtually every classroom we visited, and this was four years after the district adopted the 75 percent goal.

Only 22 percent of the district’s students earn a job readiness certificate.

Career readiness isn’t a priority, say teachers.

LAURIE NEHF, Elgin High School: I’m not told to have them job-ready. I’m told to have them college-ready.

. . . JOHN TULENKO: Last year in math, 60 percent of students missed the mark. A number of teachers here told us it’s not uncommon they find students in their classes who have yet to learn the math taught in middle school. Regardless, these students are placed in algebra and geometry.

LAURIE NEHF: They just shut down. They get very frustrated. We won’t accept meeting kids where they’re at and helping them where they’re at.

I would love to spend all my time working on percentages, fractions, all that stuff with number sense. That number sense skills is what matters in the real world.

Providing alternatives to the traditional high school math is risky for high schools, says Tulenko. The algebra-geometry sequence is what’s tested.

‘Deep learning’

Teachers are looking for ways to engage students in “deep learning,” reports John Tulenko on PBS.

At King Middle School in Portland, Maine, science teacher Peter Hill’s eighth graders started a four-month study of energy  by building robots. They’ll finish by designing an energy device that could help people somewhere in the world.

Teach your robot well

Know-it-all robots don’t make good tutors, according to a Japanese study. Children learn more when they teach the robot, reports New Scientist.

Shizuko Matsuzoe and Fumihide Tanaka at the University of Tsukuba, Japan . . . observed how 19 children aged between 4 and 8 interacted with a humanoid Nao robot in a learning game in which each child had to draw the shape that corresponded to an English word such as ‘circle’, ‘square’, ‘crescent’, or ‘heart’.

The researchers operated the robot from a room next to the classroom so that it appeared weak and feeble, and the children were encouraged to take on the role of carers. The robot could then either act as an instructor, drawing the correct shape for the child, or make mistakes and act as if it didn’t know the answer.

When the robot got a shape wrong, the child could teach the robot how to draw it correctly by guiding its hand. The robot then either “learned” the English word for that shape or continued to make mistakes.

Children did best and were more likely to want to continue when the robot appeared to learn from them.

Robots teach English in South Korea

South Korean students are learning English from robots controlled by teachers in the Philippines. The Engkey robots are teaching at 21 elementary schools in the southeastern city of Daegu.

The 3-1/2-foot-tall, egg-shaped device, developed by the Korea Institute of Science and Technology (KIST), has a TV display screen for a face. The human teachers can see and listen to the students through the remote link and can direct the robots to move around the classroom, “dance” to music, play educational games and sing songs with the children.

Robots begin teaching English in South Korean classrooms

Knowledge Economy Ministry / AFP / Getty Images

The robots display an avatar face of a Caucasian woman, but cameras detect the Filipino teachers’ facial expressions and reflect them on the avatar’s face, Sagong Seong-Dae, a senior scientist at KIST, told Agence France Presse.

“Well-educated, experienced Filipino teachers are far cheaper than their counterparts elsewhere, including South Korea,” he told AFP.

Apart from reading books, the robots use pre-programmed software to sing songs and play alphabet games with the children.

“The kids seemed to love it since the robots look, well, cute and interesting. But some adults also expressed interest, saying they may feel less nervous talking to robots than a real person,” said Kim Mi-Young, an official at Daegu city education office.

Robots may be sent to rural areas where foreign English teachers are reluctant to work. However, Kim said the experiment isn’t designed to replace human teachers. “We are helping upgrade a key, strategic industry and all the while giving children more interest in what they learn.”

“Having robots in the classroom makes the students more active in participating, especially shy ones afraid of speaking out to human teachers,” Kim said.

Korean scientists have been experimenting with using robots to teach math, science and other subjects.

“They won’t complain about health insurance, sick leave and severance package, or leave in three months for a better-paying job in Japan,” Sagong said.

Just joking?

Meet the teacher, Mr. Robot

Can robots teach? In labs around the world, social robots are learning how to engage children and teach simple skills, reports the New York Times.

Researchers say the pace of innovation is such that these machines should begin to learn as they teach, becoming the sort of infinitely patient, highly informed instructors that would be effective in subjects like foreign language or in repetitive therapies used to treat developmental problems like autism.

South Korea is using robots as teacher aides and classroom playmates and is experimenting with English-teaching robots.  A UC-San Diego robot is teaching Finnish to preschoolers. At USC and University of Connecticut, children on the autism spectrum are interacting with robots.

Yes, it’s making people a bit nervous, though nobody thinks robots will replace human teachers.

When San Diego preschoolers pulled the arms off the RUBI robot, engineers programmed RUBI to cry when its arms were pulled. The children stopped pulling and  hugged the robot to stop it from crying.

RUBI significantly improved the vocabulary of nine preschoolers, researchers found.

At Honda Labs in Silicon Valley,  Asimo “taught grade-school students how to set a table — improving their accuracy by about 25 percent.”

In person they are not remotely humanlike, most of today’s social robots. Some speak well, others not at all. Some move on two legs, others on wheels. Many look like escapees from the Island of Misfit Toys.

Robots that look human come across as creepy, researchers say.  The way to encourage social interaction is to make sure the robot responds at a natural rate.

In recent experiments at a day care center in Japan, researchers have shown that having a robot simply bob or shake at the same rhythm a child is rocking or moving can quickly engage even very fearful children with autism.

“The child begins to notice something in that synchronous behavior and open up,” said Marek Michalowski of Carnegie Mellon University, who collaborated on the studies. Once that happens, he said, “you can piggyback social behaviors onto the interaction, like eye contact, joint attention, turn taking, things these kids have trouble with.”

At the University of Connecticut, a French robot called Nao works with children on the autism spectrum. Controlled by a therapist,  Nao demonstrates “martial arts kicks and chops and urges the child to follow suit; then it encourages the child to lead.”

“I just love robots, and I know this is therapy, but I don’t know — I think it’s just fun,” said Sam, an 8-year-old from New Haven with Asperger’s syndrome, who recently engaged in the therapy.

This simple mimicry seems to build a kind of trust, and increase sociability, said Anjana Bhat, an assistant professor in the department of education who is directing the experiment. “Social interactions are so dependent on whether someone is in sync with you,” Dr. Bhat said. “You walk fast, they walk fast; you go slowly, they go slowly — and soon you are interacting, and maybe you are learning.”

Georgia Tech scientists are trying to teach robots to understand nonverbal cues, so they’ll know when a child is confused or tuned out.

Robot teachers: sinister machines or patient helpers?

From 1969: Education's high-tech future

Computopia offers a Japanese view from 1969 about the high-tech world of 1989, including the classroom of the future. The teacher appears on a giant screen presenting a math problem while students work on their desktop computers. Students revise incorrect answers with a light pen until the computer says they’ve got it right.

For the purpose of maintaining order, the future classroom will come equipped with watchful robots that rap students on the head if they lose focus or act up.

Dream on, teachers of 2009.

Should I let kids fail?

An after-school robotics club advisor asks whether she should let students fail at what’s supposed to be a fun activity. Laura Reasoner Jones, a technology teacher in Virginia, coached fifth and sixth graders, who were supposed to build and program robots for a demonstration to which parents were invited. Two of the five teams didn’t get a robot to work.

Am I going to let them experience the natural consequences of inaction, or am I going to intervene and fix things?

. . . They spent weeks playing with the software but would not use any of the canned programs that are great starting places.

. . . When they finally got a robot built and found they could not get the program to work, they were unwilling to either tinker with it or start over, and the time just dribbled away. So, now it is the last week before the demo, and they have nothing. Nothing!!!

Jones decided she could not let them “watch all of their friends be applauded and praised by staff and parents,” while they had nothing to show.

(The after-school program) is about personal success, whatever form that may take.

I think about my goals for this project. I want each child to build and program a robot, learning that he/she can do new things and stretch his/her brain into new fields without fear of failure. I want each child to see herself/himself as an engineer, a builder, a creator. And above all, I want each child to feel pride in his/her work.

But personally, as a mother and as a teacher, I also want each child to learn from mistakes, to take risks and experience the consequences of risk-taking. I don’t want to rescue kids. I want them to learn to rescue themselves.

Finally, she decided to ask the engineer mentors to rescue the slacker students so they could “experience success.”

Is it really success? Would failure have been more educational?

In my book, Our School, a hard-knock charter school, Downtown College Prep, sends teams of students to compete in a Silicon Valley robotics contest called the Tech Challenge.  The best team takes fourth place; another team’s robot fails the challenge, while the girls’ team is sidelined by a bad battery.

“You’re all champions,” says the presenter. Adam and Rico look dubious. They don’t want anyone saying this was their best effort, because it wasn’t. They can do better.

. . . The Lady Lobos also aren’t satisfied with their performance. They glare at their yellow ribbons, given for participating. Their machine didn’t work, and they’re not going to pretend it did.

After three fourth-place finishes in the Tech Challenge, a DCP team won the grand prize in 2004. One of things those kids learned was how to try, fail, get up off the floor and try harder and smarter next time around.