Automation Doesn’t Threaten The Trades

April 26, 2016

Robot plumbers are a long, long way off

Can trade workers be replaced by machines? That would seem to be the implication by a computer scientist at Rice University, who predicts that by 2045 machines will be capable of doing almost any job a human can. He cites the rate of progress in artificial intelligence (AI).

Many white collar professionals thought to be immune to automation, like lawyers and journalists, now seem threatened, according to this reckoning. Maybe so, but I don’t buy it when it comes to trade workers.

I’m in awe of the advances being made in AI, which seem to be bringing us to the verge of driverless cars just a few years down the road. At the same time, I’m old enough to remember a time when futurists predicted that by now we would be zipping around in hovercraft autos and robots would be doing all of our household chores. Also indelibly etched in my mind is my research in preparing to write the 100th Anniversary history of the Mechanical Contractors Association of America years ago. An article in an MCAA-published magazine dating from 1955 discussed the coming era of nuclear-powered residential boilers. This was around the time we were building commercial nuclear reactors helter-skelter and hearing about a time when electricity would be too cheap to meter.

The future no doubt will be filled with wondrous things we can scarcely imagine right now. Nobody envisioned the internet a half-century ago. It’s not too far-fetched to believe that machines may learn to prefabricate many of the plumbing, piping and electrical systems in new construction. That pretty much resembles what takes place on a factory assembly line. Yet it will be much harder to program a device to duplicate all the complex diagnostics and wrench-turning that takes place in service calls. At least that’s what I think. I can only hope to still be around in 30 years to see if I’m right.

I’m not the only one who thinks this way. Check out this interview with an author who wrote The Rise of the Robots. A key excerpt is below:

“Some of the safest jobs are going to be areas like being an electrician or a plumber or maybe a car mechanic because it’s really hard to build a robot that can do all of those things.”