Help wanted, robots welcome!

Jan. 24, 2017
Rick Nelson,
Executive Editor

To contend with declining labor-force growth and aging populations worldwide, we may need to embrace automation. This seems counterintuitive. The often-cited 2013 Oxford University study by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne says 47% of United States jobs are susceptible to computerization. That may ultimately create more and better jobs, but in the short term it would likely displace workers who will remain unemployed until they can retrain for the new jobs that might be created.

Nevertheless, Ruchir Sharma, chief global strategist at Morgan Stanley Investment Management, writes Dec. 2 in The Washington Post, “It may not be long before economists are worrying about a global shortage of robots.” He notes that in many industrial countries, growth of the working-age population has peaked, and something will have to replace each retiring farmer, for example—most likely a farmbot.

He says humans learn to work alongside their automated creations. For example, the number of cashiers grew after the introduction of supermarket scanners.

He adds that the job picture is strong in the industrial countries—Germany, Japan, and South Korea—that use the most robots. He notes that robots remain a small portion of the total worldwide industrial labor force of 320 million humans, compared with 1.6 million mostly unintelligent single-task robots. As the robots proliferate and become more intelligent, the effect on human employment may be less salutary than Sharma predicts. Nevertheless, he says, as the world grays, “… the economic answer to aging will be all hands on deck, no matter what they’re made of.”

Regardless of how automation ultimately affects working-age industrial labor-force employment rates, robotics does show promise in a nonindustrial application—assisting the elderly and infirm. For example, 15 million people per year worldwide suffer from a stroke, and many survivors live with residual effects requiring long-term intensive physiotherapy that places a huge burden on the healthcare system.

Two projects described on page 28 of this issue illustrate the possibilities. First, the Project ALAN (for Advanced upper-Limb Autonomous Neuro-rehabilitation) student team at the University of Leeds built a post-stroke therapy device that aims to help patients regain use of their arms. And second, researchers from Beihang University in China and Aalborg University in Denmark designed a lower-limb robotic exoskeleton that features natural knee movement to improve patients’ comfort and willingness to wear it for gait rehab.

Both the Project ALAN device and the exoskeleton, if successfully commercialized, can complement traditional therapy and be used by the patient at home, where they could join other home healthcare devices and gadgets ranging from glucose monitors and insulin pumps to medical-alert devices and GPS locators—if those devices don’t succumb to a “gadget apocalypse” predicted by Farhad Manjoo in a Dec. 7 article in The New York Times. Manjoo’s point is mainly that smartphones can do what most gadgets—such as fitness bands—do.

A smartphone can’t be an insulin pump, but it can assist in monitoring glucose levels and communicating the data to caregivers. And it certainly has the functionality to provide GPS location information and make an emergency call. But when it comes to the aging and the ill, the simplicity of a lightweight unobtrusive single-purpose gadget can be a benefit.

Fitbit, which has been struggling according to a Dec. 3 article in The Wall Street Journal, could receive a boost if its gadgets can move from “nice to have” to “need to have.” One possibility is to offer improved sensors and encourage healthcare providers to prescribe Fitbit devices for long-term monitoring. If that proves successful, then gadgets like Fitbit can take their place among robotic rehabilitation devices in the home healthcare environment.

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