It sounds like a script from a bad Tom Cruise movie. Eventually the dangerous machines become capable of limitless artificial intelligence and take over the world, only to be outsmarted by some heroic member of the human race.

At this point in their evolution, robots have crossed a threshold. To date, robots have been used primarily to replace remedial, repetitive tasks in manufacturing environments and the like. But a confluence of recent technological advancements, such as richly engineered software and faster processing speeds, offers something unprecedented. Today’s robots are capable of spatial reasoning and situational awareness. In other words, they can think for themselves.

Needless to say, artificial intelligence has made enormous strides in recent years. Robots are now modeled more closely after the human brain, giving them the capacity to think in abstract terms.

The next generation of robots will, for the first time, conduct tasks that were once reserved for surgeons, nurses and other jobs that require human judgment. New materials are making robots lighter and more compact. For instance, nanorobots are smaller than a pebble and are capable of performing medical procedures unmatched by doctors. In Manila, more than 1.2 million call center jobs that were once high-end technology careers, such as network monitoring, have been replaced by robots.

Consider the possibilities for robots at scale. Foxconn, the electronics manufacturing company that makes the majority of the world’s iPhones and employs over 500 thousand people, has plans to purchase 1 million robots. A 2013 study by Carl Benedict and Michael Osborne concluded that at least 47 percent of American jobs are vulnerable to this massive technology shift. Specifically, those working in administrative support and transportation could see employees replaced by their computerized counterparts. Even positions such as accountants, cashier clerks, and security guards are at risk.

Replacing people with machines has sparked debate about the potential social ramifications. In manufacturing, machines have been replacing humans for some time. Robots (which cost about $2 per labor hour to operate) have already cost our economy thousands of jobs, and depressed wages at the bottom end of the pay scale.

In a period of free money, CapEx expenditures win over costlier OpEx expenditures. Both manufacturing and service business operators may need to work from a new paradigm. There is a race to the bottom to reduce labor expenditures, and employers will need to weigh the costs of doing business with humans to the cost of replacing people with machines.

However, the narrative extends beyond reducing cost of business to providing capabilities that companies may not have otherwise. We will always need quality people to run the machines, but perhaps there will be fewer of them. As employers (and as an economy), we should focus on engaging humans in high-value activities. Let the machines do the rest.

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[i] The Industries of the Future

[ii] Robots on Track to Bump Humans from Call-Center Jobs: The Wall Street Journal

[iii] The Economist