May 13, 2016

Could drones replace $127 billion worth of human labor?

Over $127 billion of current business services and labor are likely to be replaced in the near future by drone-powered solutions, according to predictions in a new study from PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC)—Clarity from Above.

According to the study, infrastructure, agriculture, and transport are the industries with the best prospects for drone applications, with a joint value of over $90 billion.

There appears to be general agreement that robot automation will transform labor markets, and, as a result, could pose a real threat to some sectors of human labor—however, a great deal of uncertainty remains.

Whilst drones have already been introduced to replace people in certain situations in certain jobs—e.g. soldiers and pilots—and have obvious applications in others—e.g. delivering packages, enabling security companies to better monitor their sites, helping producers and advertisers to film projects, and giving mining companies a new way to plan their excavations—other industries are unlikely to be as severely affected.

Few occupations seem likely to be automated in their entirety; it is more likely that certain activities will become automated or the technology will be utilized to replace existing technologies, or support existing roles. For example, beach patrols in the US are looking at how drone technology might support the work of their lifeguards: shark spotting, locating submerged persons, delivering flotation devices in adverse conditions.

And even though some jobs could disappear, drone technology should spur the growth of many new jobs; for instance, people will be needed to repair, maintain, and pilot them, and to analyze the resulting data, jobs that take significant skill and training.

Richard B. Freeman has written for IZA World of Labor about the ownership of robots and artificial intelligence technologies. He notes that as “companies substitute machines and computers for human activity, workers need to own part of the capital stock that substitutes for them to benefit from these new ‘robot’ technologies.” He suggests that “[w]orkers could own shares of the firm, hold stock options, or be paid in part from the profits,” as “[w]ithout ownership stakes, workers will become serfs working on behalf of the robots’ overlords.”

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