If you pay attention to the headlines, you’ll have likely noticed an uptick in news reports claiming that robots and artificial intelligence (AI) are poised to take away many of the jobs we know today. Indeed, some supermarkets and restaurants are already experimenting with robots that can deliver orders, and as reported in a previous article, most HVACR manufacturers are investing heavily in AI.
While it is almost certain that robots and AI will play a larger role in our everyday lives in the coming years, I don’t think there will be as many job losses as some claim – particularly in the HVACR industry. Mainly because mechanical contractors (and plumbers, electricians, etc.) work in a wide variety of environments on all kinds of equipment and regularly encounter problems that are unique to the application. These are not conditions under which robots excel. Robots usually do well with repetitive tasks in predictable environments, such as manufacturing, data processing, and food preparation.
But some disagree with me. I recently had a lengthy discussion with a friend about this very subject. I shared my belief that robots and AI will likely lead to some job losses but that won’t be the case in areas such as HVACR, because someone will always be needed to go out to a site to fix mechanical equipment. My friend disagreed, noting that advanced diagnostics will eventually be able to relay any equipment problems to a person in a control room far away, who will then deploy tiny robots or drones to mechanical rooms, attics, and crawl spaces to make actual repairs.
I have a hard time imagining a flock of drones descending on a supermarket to fix a refrigeration unit or a robot shimmying up a ladder to repair an air handler in an attic, but he did bring up a good point about advanced diagnostics. With the integration of AI into mechanical equipment, technicians – for the most part -- will no longer need to guess what is wrong with a system. Instead, intelligent controls will likely be able to tell them what is wrong with the equipment, and more importantly, how to fix it. And this information will be available to technicians before they reach the job site, so they can make sure they are equipped with the tools necessary to make the repair.
While AI will be invaluable when it comes to troubleshooting – or even predicting -- problems, I still contend that an actual person will be needed to make the repairs. Just as I believe an actual person will be needed to install the equipment in the first place. As evidence, there is a report from the McKinsey Global Institute, which states that while almost every occupation can be automated to a certain degree, less than 5 percent of occupations are candidates for full automation. The report also notes that automation will not happen overnight, because even when the technical potential exists, “it will take years for automation’s effect on current work activities to play out fully.”
There is also good reason to be optimistic about the use of robots and AI. Not only will they make some tasks easier – such as troubleshooting equipment – they could lead to the formation of new jobs or industries that we may not even be considering today. Consider the fact that we were primarily an agrarian nation only 150 years ago, yet the strides made in technology during the turn of the 20th century resulted in tremendous economic growth and prosperity in the U.S. One of those innovations was the automobile, and like the robots of today, many thought it would mark the end of civilized society. But Henry Ford came up with innovative assembly-line technology that made the Model T an affordable option for just about everyone, and a whole new industry was born.
So don’t despair that a robot will soon be taking your job; instead, be excited about how new technologies will help you to be even more successful at what you do.