Why Robots Will Replace Construction and Manufacturing Jobs

Originally published by: Fast CompanyJanuary 19, 2017

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I was recently talking to a friend of mine who’s an accountant. He has his own accounting firm and lives an upper-class lifestyle in the Chicago suburbs. As he's an accountant with an additional degree in economics, naturally the conversation veered to the future of the economy. He said he will happily pay for his daughter's college education, provided she won’t pursue a degree in accounting.

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard a parent say they don’t want their child following in their career footsteps; a lawyer recently told me the same thing. And it’s not because they feel they've been unsuccessful or that their career was too demanding. Indeed, both are relatively well off and have plenty of free time to spend with their families. It's because they feel future job prospects in their fields are bleak due to one thing: automation.

Automation, which includes both mechanized robots (whether humanoid or drone-shaped) and artificially intelligent software programs, are predicted to eliminate 6% of the jobs in the U.S. in the next five years. And it’s not just low-wage employees that need to be worried. Highly skilled, knowledge-based employees in some sectors, including legal and accounting, could see their jobs decimated in the next decade. Deloitte estimates that 39% of jobs in the legal sector could be automated in the next 10 years. Separate research has concluded that accountants have a 95% chance of losing their jobs to automation in the future.

My accountant and lawyer friends are right to steer their children away, says Phil Burton-Cartledge, program leader for sociology at the University of Derby in the U.K. "When it comes to advice about higher education, I’d recommend students go for more generalist as opposed to specialist degrees, whether in the human, natural, or computer sciences. A broad range of skills and competencies is the best way to future-proof people for the challenges coming down the line," he says.

But it’s not just professionals in the legal and accounting sectors that will see jobs disappear due to automation. Knowledge workers, retail, and manual laborers will also see their job prospects decline. Here are the jobs that could be hit the worst.


The effects of automation on the insurance industry are already being felt. In Japan, Fukoku Mutual Life Insurance has recently replaced 30 of its medical insurance claims reps with an AI system based on IBM’s Watson Explore, reports the Guardian. The software can "analyze and interpret all of your data, including unstructured text, images, audio, and video" better and faster than a human can, and can "drastically reduce" the time needed to calculate Fukoku Mutual’s payouts, according to a company representative.


First it was the ATM that ate into human banking jobs, then the smartphone app. It’s likely that many of the remaining human-based teller and representative banking jobs will be finished off by AI, reports CNBC. AI won’t just be able to conduct cash transactions, it will be able to open accounts and process loans at a fraction of the cost and time it takes for human employees. "The ATM of tomorrow is going to replace the teller," Andy Mattes, CEO of financial software company Diebold told the network. "It can do approximately 90% of what the human being can do, and it's going to be your branch in a box."


Once thought indispensable to a company, keen-eyed financial analysts could spot a trend before it happened, allowing institutions to adjust their portfolios and potentially make billions of dollars. But human financial analysts can no longer compete with artificially intelligent financial analysis software that can read and recognize trends in historic data to predict future market moves. It’s no wonder that financial analyst jobs could be the worst hit in the estimated 30% of banking sector jobs lost to AI in the next five to 10 years.


Manual labor jobs are also under threat by automation. Robotic bricklayers will soon be introduced to construction sites that enable the machines to replace two to three human workers each, reports Technology Review. SAM (Semi-Automated Mason) can lay up to 1,200 bricks a day, compared to the 300 to 500 a human can do. While a human is still required to work with SAM to complete the more nuanced tasks, the use of SAM reduces the need for the three other bricklayers it would take to do the same job. Other on-site construction jobs such as crane operators and bulldozer drivers can also expect to see their positions filled by AI-controlled machines in the next decade.


The supermarket employee restocking the cans in aisle three may soon no longer be a person. As robots become more advanced, they are capable of performing actions that previously required a pair of eyeballs, such as managing inventory on a store shelf. Once such robot called the Tally is designed to audit shelves for out-of-stock items, misplaced items, and pricing errors, reports Inverse. Tally roams the aisles and uses multiple sensors to scan the shelves, alerting human staff of its findings.

While robots like Tally can cost retailers tens of thousands up front, chains stand to save hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars over the long run because, unlike humans, robots don’t get sick, need holidays, require a 401(k) payment, and can be retrained in an instant with a simple software update.


Farmers are being replaced by artificially intelligent robots that can do everything from milk cows to pull lettuce. A family-owned dairy farm in Germany is one of the first to install Voluntary Milking System robots that allow cows to walk up to the machines at their leisure when they want to be milked, reports Modern Farmer. And more than 1 million of the U.S.’s farmhands could see their jobs replaced by intelligent machines that do everything from weed cabbage patches to pick apples, reports Quartz.


While traditional taxi drivers may be feeling the pinch from the likes of Uber and Lyft, drivers of all three will see their jobs dry up as autonomous vehicles hit the road. And it’s the ride-share companies who can’t wait to rush their drivers out of the car. As Uber’s CEO has said, its service would be a lot more inexpensive and its profits much greater if you weren't "paying for that other dude in the car." In the next 10 years, cities across the world will have fleets of self-driving taxis. Uber is testing such vehicles and Singapore is the first country to already put up to a dozen on the roads.


A common refrain you hear from populist politicians the world over is that they will bring manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. But that’s never going to happen. Even China, the country where the majority of the world’s manufacturing jobs exist, will see its human manufacturing workforce depleted by robots in the near future. As a matter of fact, it’s already happening. Foxconn, the manufacturer who makes everything from iPhones to Xboxes, recently replaced 60,000 workers with robots.


Sadly, not even my job is safe. It turns out writing is not a problem for AI. In 2014, the Associated Press began to use intelligent software to write quarterly earnings reports. Up to 3,000 reports are being written by AI every quarter, the Verge reported. It’s entirely feasible that content sites of the future could exist without any human writers at all.


It’s possible that we could see actors looking as young in movies as they did when they first debuted on the big screen. Recently, Hollywood has taken a liking to advanced CGI techniques that allow even deceased actors to be resurrected from the dead—the most notable example being Peter Cushing's Grand Moff Tarkin CGI resurrection in Rogue One: a Star Wars Story. In the same 2016 movie, Carrie Fisher also appeared as the 21-year-old Princess Leia from the 1977 Star Wars film. It’s possible that if both studios and audiences embrace the CGI resurrection technology, there will be fewer jobs for new potential movie stars in the future as the same beloved stars of today (and yesterday) could keep staring and "acting" in big blockbusters for decades to come. Matter of fact, the use of CGI to bring actors to the big screen was recently the subject of an excellent sci-fi flick called The Congress, starring Robin Wright as herself.