Baxter is the very model of a modern-day employee.

Eyebrows furrowed in quiet concentration, he’s quick to learn skills that can be used to package bottles or move products on factory lines. He’s easy to train and gentle, meaning no safety cage is needed to work nearby. And he’ll toil round the clock to get the job done.

He also happens to be a metre-tall 3-foot-1-inch (minus the pedestal) red robot, newly acquired by Toronto’s Humber College and made by Boston’s Rethink Robotics, which has sold hundreds of Baxters in recent years. His face – a screen – sports six expressions, from confused to asleep, and his long agile arms have sensors and two-finger grippers. The real game changer: At $25,000, he’s comparatively affordable for a robot, whose costs have traditionally run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

He’s as good a symbol as any of the coming revolution in the workplace as robots get smarter, more mobile – and cheaper. As companies such as Google, Apple and Amazon plunge into robotics – and the ingredients to make them, such as sensors, drop in price – these technologies are at a tipping point, poised to enter mass markets.

The impact on employment will be profound. On the one hand, machines could take over many of the most dirty, dangerous and dull jobs, leaving humans with less repetitive, safer and more interesting work.

A long-standing debate, though, is being rekindled over the extent to which machines will reduce the need for workers. Automation is already a workplace mainstay in factories, warehouses and airports. In the coming decade or two, nearly half of U.S. jobs are at risk of becoming automated, a recent paper by Oxford University concluded (its probability list shows telemarketers and bank tellers are most vulnerable to computerization, while occupational therapists and choreographers are among the least at risk).

“We’re really entering an era of anxiety about [whether] the rate at which technology is changing is actually reducing opportunity,” David Autor, economics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said in a February speech at an Ottawa conference.

The jobs most ripe for replacement are routine tasks that tend to be repetitive and in controlled environments, such as bookkeepers and factory workers, he says. Jobs that require abstract thinking – problem solving and mental flexibility – are harder to replace, such as scientists and managers. In their 2011 book, Race Against the Machine, MIT professor Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee conclude technology is driving both robust productivity gains and weak employment and median wage growth.

Machines are thus most likely to carve out middle-skill occupations, which partly explains the hollowing out of the middle class in North America and the polarization in the labour market, with growth in both high-skill and low-skill occupations, he says.

Anxiety over worker displacement isn’t new. A century ago, angry workers trashed power looms in frustration at the labour-saving machinery. In the 1960s, the Milwaukee-Matic, an industrial machining tool, became a symbol of a machine that could eliminate the need for tool makers. Since then, machines have elbowed factory workers aside, triggering a slide in manufacturing’s share of employment.

Agricultural also shows how automation can displace workers. In 1840, almost 70 per cent of U.S. workers toiled in the sector; that share has shrivelled to about 2 per cent as plows and tractors (along with better fertilizers and irrigation) boosted productivity and took over the work of people.

Other jobs, particularly in services, have sprung up in the past to offer new opportunities for workers. But that pattern may now be shifting as high-growth sectors of the economy — such as technology and mining — are far less labour-intensive.

Still, Paul Beaudry is skeptical a sudden surge in robots-stealing-jobs is under way. The professor, who studies the economics of technical change, at the Vancouver School of Economics notes the big increase in automation happened in many factories in prior decades. In recent years, though, business investment has been sluggish with companies reluctant to put much cash into new machinery and equipment. He figures the anxiety stems from still-elevated unemployment rates, slow economic growth and an accelerating pace of technological change.

He’s less concerned about machines replacing workers than about the impact of technology on income inequality. “It’s not so much that there won’t be jobs … but technology can create polarization in the level of wages, moving people to either being superstars that are getting enormous amounts of money while other people are getting very little,” Prof. Beaudry says.

The rate of change appears to be ramping up. Automation is rapidly taking over the duties of travel agents, accountants, front-desk receptionists, customer-service reps and post-office workers. Robots are mining for nickel and fetching inventory in Amazon warehouses. New capabilities are unveiled every day. Robots are cooks, with IBM food trucks serving machine-made asparagus quiche. In schools, robots are being tested as teachers’ assistants. In journalism, an algorithm wrote a story on the earthquake last month for an L.A. Times reporter. In trucking, Suncor is testing autonomous vehicles at its open-pit mine in Alberta, which could lead to fewer accidents and higher productivity.

Their reach is extending to less traditional arenas. Brian is a University of Toronto robot developed to care for the elderly, an area of rising need as the population ages. He gently reminds seniors, whose attention can stray, to eat their lunch. He can play memory games with them and suggest recipes. He can recognize emotions and adjust conversations and other interactions accordingly. Brian costs just a few thousand dollars and will likely be on the market in the next decade.

“I don’t see this as replacing jobs,” says Prof. Goldie Nejat, who is also developing search-and-research robots that can look for people in rubble following earthquakes. Rather, like computers or cellphones, she says these are new tools to assist workers doing dangerous or stressful jobs.

Mobile robots buzz and hum about the University of Waterloo’s student labs, from unmanned vehicles to aerial drones. Driverless trucks could materialize on main highways within the next five years – reducing the need for truck drivers, says Steven Waslander, assistant professor at the department of mechanical and mechatronics engineering. He envisions robots flying about inspecting pipelines from the air, detecting fires in warehouses and mapping post-disaster areas in real time – leaving less repetitive and safer work for humans.

Some industries do want to reduce reliance on workers. In Niagara’s horticultural heartland, technology is being developed to eventually replace migrant workers. Labour comprises about 40 per cent of a typical operation’s expenses and the sector is looking for ways to cut that.

At the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre, a test robot hoovers up white mushrooms from a box of dark earth. Next door, another is labelling and packaging pots of pink mini-roses. In busy times, like Mother’s Day, it can work non-stop to fill surges in demand – with no additional overtime pay.

“We need to solve the labour-cost problem,” says chief executive Jim Brandle. “We have minimum wage going up and we have to compete with the rest of the world. The solution to that is automation.”

Where does that leave the younger generation? These shifts mean skills such as problem-solving, conflict management, resiliency and creativity are ever more important if they are to compete with machines for work. Already, more students are picking robotics as one career option. Schools such as Humber, Waterloo and University of Toronto are boosting capacity in their robotics and mechatronics programs – with virtually all students landing work after graduation.

The Globe and Mail
Published Sunday, Apr. 20 2014, 10:04 PM EDT
Last updated Sunday, Apr. 20 2014, 10:04 PM EDT