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In uncharted, automated future, will we have jobs and will they be boring?

While limitations exist, industries of all types are automating tasks across the board, experts say

May 28, 2015

MIT professors Tomaso Poggio and Daniela Rus on a symposium panel about automation

MIT professors Tomaso Poggio and Daniela Rus on a symposium panel about automation

The factory of the future may be run by just one man and one dog.

“The man’s job will be to feed the dog,” Professor Erik Brynjolfsson said May 20 at the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium. “And the dog’s job will be to make sure the man doesn’t touch any of the controls.”

Brynjolfsson was joking, but in some industries many of the controls no longer need to be touched. Commercial airline jets? Automated. Journalism? Automated Insights’ Wordsmith was used to write about 1 billion stories last year, its CEO Robbie Allen, SDM ’06, said on a panel about automation that Brynjolfsson moderated. The software crafts data like sports box scores and earnings reports into readable prose. Some of those articles, typically earnings reports, were run on Associated Press newswires with no editing by human beings.

And Singapore has tested driverless cars, safely carrying passengers on park paths also in use by pedestrians and cyclists. The country has also opened one of its neighborhoods to driverless cars.

Limits to robotics on the factory floor

Advances in big data, robotics, and machine learning are driving these newly automated tasks, and the economic implications could be huge. But it also isn’t without limitations.

"You can take today's robots and make them very effective at doing one thing,” said Professor Daniela Rus, director of the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. “In general, it's difficult for robots to do more than they were programmed for. They can't figure things out beyond what was programmed in the machine and beyond what the body was designed to do.”

While the automobile industry has automated about 80 percent of the manufacturing process, only about 3 percent of manufacturing in the cellphone and electronics industries is automated, Rus said.

“Industries that make products that change very fast cannot benefit in the same way,” she said. “Part of the reason is every automation line requires special tooling [and] special configuration and that takes a long time to create. So if your product changes every three months there won’t be time to create the tooling in the plants. At least not today.”

A warning on boredom and safety

An unexpected byproduct of automation for airline pilots and others that oversee automated systems: boredom.

“Humans don't handle that well,” said Duke University Professor Mary “Missy” Cummings, director of the Humans and Autonomy Lab there. “It’s a really hot topic right now. How much automation is in there? How much automation should there be? It’s a problem not just in aviation but in all industries with minding [automated systems]. People are babysitting automated systems for extended periods of time, and this is something humans don’t do well at all. It causes problems with complacency and expecting that humans will intervene at the right time, which they will not.”

“If you think that’s a problem in aviation, just wait until automated cars hit the road,” she said.