The hype around all the labor problems caused by robots seems to have only started. The 4th Automation Revolution of the 21st century is pretty controversial just like any global trend is. Boosted productivity and lower prices contribute to an already enormous mass-consumption. At the same time, hundreds and thousands of low-skilled workers can lose their jobs (or get free time for personal life and self-development, as some like to say).
The education system doesn’t react fast and flexible enough to all the changes and fails to replace the dying professions with something like „robot integrator“, “robot HR manager” or “robot couch”. Still, the author believes that it’s not robots who decide how many employees to fire and how many robot-fellows to hire.
It’s not robots who decide whether to invest in the employees’ retraining or not. It’s not robots who decide the company’s policy. All decisions are made by people. Robots are the simple executors.
However, in some situations, the complete job replacement by robots is a good thing. Let’s have a look at five jobs, where it’s perfectly humanely to replace a person with a robot.
Welding is one of the most dangerous jobs in the industry. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, over 500,000 people are involved in welding. There is no official statistics on non-fatal injuries in welding in the USA. Yet, OSHA studies show that 1 in 250 construction workers will die from a welding injury.
Despite the strict regulations, safety standards, personal protection, numerous warnings and training, accidents still happen. And accidents where a human being, an extremely high level of heat, and electric power are involved, rarely end well. Here are just some of the risks that welders face when they are not following all the precautions systematically, all the time.
Burns: Heat, chemical, radiation, electricity, and ‘cold’ burns caused by liquid gases. Fumes, flames, sparks, hot metal, and arc-rays. First-, second-, third-degree burns, the first being just a slight burn of the outer skin layer and the last being the entire burning of skin and sometimes even nerves.
Inhalation of hazardous substances produced during the welding. Polluted air contains particles of different shapes and sizes. When not wearing a mask, a welder could breathe in almost half of the periodic table. The most dangerous nanoparticles are so small that they are hard to stop. They penetrate deep in our lungs and get into the blood system after that. The regular inhalation, depending on the size, nature, and shape of particles, may lead to various respiratory diseases, from chronic bronchitis to lung cancer.
Ultraviolet keratitis, welder’s flash, arc eye, corneal flash burn, snow blindness. Sounds like names of some superheroes, doesn’t it? All these are the types of an eye burn – the most frequent health claim among the welders. The intense ultraviolet light produced from the arc ray results in symptoms such as light sensitivity, blurred vision, pain, bloodshot, and sometimes even permanent blindness.
Sure, when a welder works in a secure space with good ventilation, steady monitoring for toxic emissions, noise control, and equipped with all necessary protections, the risks are low. But they still cannot be excluded. What’s worse, even though this job is so dangerous, industrial welders’ average salary is about $31 000 a year. This is 34% lower than the average wage in the USA (in 2017). Sure, it depends on the job position, experience, etc. But still, what’s the actual price of human health?
Robotic arms minimize hazards. Safety fences, light curtains, interlocking doors in robotic welding cells keep humans out of the area, while the welding robot does all the dangerous work. A worker has to load parts, control the process on a laptop, check the resulting quality, adjust a robotic arm to new tasks if needed, but all this without putting own life in danger.
Nowadays, the usage of robotic arms is limited to automated welding indoors in most cases. However, some mobile welding robots are already tested in construction and outdoor operations. So, hopefully, one day, production and construction will not require any human sacrifices to function normally.
Deep blue sea is a workplace for not that many people. Commercial divers are rare birds fishes, and most of them are involved in civil and scientific jobs: touristic diving, underwater photography, and videos, study of the underwater environment. However, the most salary-privileged divers are those who work for industries. Underwater pipes inspection, welding and cutting, oil exploration, repair of ships, and even bomb disposal.
Diving alone is an unpredictable and hazardous job, not to mention the additional risks associated with industry tasks. Here are some of the health impacts that professional divers face:
Decompression sickness. Nitrogen in our body that is influenced by high pressure (or its rapid change) starts to form bubbles. Bubbles can cause pain in muscles and joints, limb weakness, and chest pain and shortness of breath in some cases.
Nitrogen narcosis or Martini effect. Nitrogen in our body (just like other gases) becomes toxic under pressure. Intoxication symptoms usually occur when diving deeper than 30 meters and are similar to the graduation party symptoms: euphoria, overconfidence, uncontrolled laughter, poor coordination, hallucinations, loss of memory. Sounds funny until you think about the meters and meters of the water above.
Hypothermia. Apart from the hot springs, the main rule in the water is: the deeper the colder, no matter how advanced the wetsuit is. Water takes warmth 20-27 times faster than air. Regular temperature decrease can affect blood pressure and central nervous system.
Arterial gas embolism. The mechanism is the same as in decompression: gas forms bubbles under pressure, and if one of them blocks the blood flow, it can cause loss of consciousness, affect organs and central nervous system.
It would be great if we could inspect pipelines regularly, fix oil spills quickly when needed, save the Great Barrier Reef in time – and all that without risking human lives. Robotic arms can be used for all these underwater jobs. They can dive deeper than any human can and don’t experience the Martini effect. The robot arm is productive, precise, and leaves a smaller ecological footprint in the underwater environment.
Recycling matters. Some of us knew it even before the Arise of Gretha Thunberg. According to ISRI, over 1.5 million people are directly or indirectly involved in “dirty” industry: garbage collectors and truck drivers, sorters at recycling plants, mechanics and technicians. All of these jobs seem to support the environment. At the same time, refuse collection is in the Top 5 of the most dangerous jobs in the USA. Why?
Dangerous equipment. Workers at recycling facilities deal with moving belts, trucks, forklifts, heavy loaders, sorting machines, etc. It is an extremely dynamic environment. Numerous instructions, security measures and trainings do not help. The nonfatal injury rate was 5.1 per 100 workers in 2014.
Bad environment. Recycling should turn our planet into a cleaner place, but it’s a dirty process in itself. At every step of the material recovery, millions of particles contaminate the air. Plastic and glass dust, toxic particles, even microbial agents. Workers in garbage plants have much more chances to catch infectious diseases at the workplace than an average employee. Noise contamination is another health risk for recyclers.
Hazardous materials. Sharp knives, used syringes, mercury-containing thermometers, dead animals. Sorting workers never know which danger can show up in the recycling stream, but they should recognize it in a few seconds and react correctly. If they don’t, the effects can be severe.
Without recycling, Earth will turn into a big round trash can (already half full), but the increasing number of recycling plants will put more and more workers in danger. Robots would be a great option here. A robotic recycling facility could work 24/7, robotic arms can sort any type of waste without the risk of being infected or damaged. Here is an example of an automated recycling line with robotic arms that recognize and sort different types of wastes. Such robots are already used in Finland and Sweden (the latter is out of the trash and has to buy it).
Gravity (2013), Interstellar (2014), the Martian (2015), Ad Astra (2019). Things in space can go wrong and not only in cinematography. So, why risk people’s lives for something that a robot can fix? This idea is reflected in the global space project ISS (International Space Station). On the ISS, two robotic helpers were launched: Canadarm2 and Dextre.
Canadarm2 is a 17.5 m long and 1641 kg heavy robotic arm developed in Canada (yeah, naming isn’t that cool but don’t judge until you get to know it closer). The robotic arm was added outside the station body to assist in its’ construction and repairs. However, this robotic arm is much more than just technical support. It can capture and deliver supplies and equipment for the station (payload is up to 116,000 kg), hold astronauts during their cosmic walks, and even catch unpiloted spacecraft, such as SpaceX’s Dragon or HTV that deliver science payloads and cargo to the space station.
Dextre is a little cousin of Canadarm2. It can be attached to different places outside on the Space Station body or even ride on the Canadarm2. Dextre has two agile arms that were constructed in case one needed to carry out routine experiments or repair works outside the station – such tasks are risky for astronauts but do not make any big contributions to science.
The other example of an astronaut robot is InSight Lander, Mars explorer from NASA. This stationary robot with a 1.8 m robotic arm landed on the Red Planet surface in 2018. Since then it did a lot: recorded the sound of Marcian winds, placed seismometers on the planet surface, tried to dig holes and take some measurements. So who knows, maybe, one day, robots will be pioneers in the exploration of the Universe, and human will enjoy the safe robot-tested space traveling.
Nowadays, astronaut job can still be found in numerous “the most dangerous jobs” rankings and studies on death rates in the workplace. Here are some risks that an astronaut could face not only in space, but also as a result of long space business trips:
Radiation: Space is radioactive. Astronauts on the space station receive 10 times more radiation than on Earth. This rate is believed to be not too damaging for health, but higher radiation still means higher cancer risks. More on space radiation risks you can read here
Temporary health impacts: To become NASA astronaut, you should be between 1,57 and 1,9 meters, have 20/20 Superman vision, and be in a great physical state to withstand all the consequences of a long space journey. Such consequences include loss of muscle and bone mass (approx. 1% monthly), headaches, reduction of postural control, loss of blood volume, and cardiovascular disorders. These effects are temporary and after their return to Earth, astronauts recover their health under medical control.
Psychiatric disorders: To be locked in a very tiny space for a long time with a group of people sounds like a daily challenge of any office manager. With one big difference: astronauts cannot go home after work. Even if space crews are well trained, you cannot predict for 100% how real space missions will affect people’s minds. Space is deep and badly explored, the human mental world is deep and underresearched as well. Long isolation may result in sleep and nutrition disorder, frustration, depression, etc. And yes, space missions are extraordinarily expensive projects limited in time, so every team member is under enormous stress because of time and responsibility pressure.
In 2018, natural disasters took 10,000 lives. Floods, wildfires, storms, earthquakes. Despite all the revolutionary ideas and discoveries, the world is still a dangerous place, where we can’t always win against nature. All that we can do is prepare and try to cope with the results. Here, robots could be great helpers in rescue missions.
Robots firefighters can reach areas unreachable for humans, stream videos, define the exact location of the fire, search for victims. Bomb-disposal robots defuse bombs keeping people safe. Robots can clean up contaminated nuclear buildings and territories, collect radioactive material using robotic arms and taking necessary measurements.
Robots can break the inhumane circle – saving the lives of ones by sacrificing the lives of others.