At one time it seemed that highly-trained scientists who also required significant hands-on skill would be safe from robotization. But now these professions are also coming under threat from the advance of robotic technologies. What are these new technologies that can automate even professions with such a high degree of complexity? Evidence of what may befall highly-trained professionals can be seen in the example of embryology in the field of assisted reproduction.
New technologies in the assisted reproduction laboratory
The arrival of genomics linked to information technologies and the maturity of robotics and nanotechnology is what may ultimately put an end to this balance of forces that enables skilled and also hands-on work in the laboratory. To illustrate this idea, the embryologist is a good model of a someone performing a highly-skilled job that could disappear due to the emergence of new technologies. What are these technologies?
In the 1960s, Gordon Moore formulated the law to which he gave his name, which stated that the number of transistors per microprocessor doubles each year, while their cost is reduced by half every 18 months. This fact has been proven empirically, and has also spread as far as genetic sequencing with the Human Genome project: between 2005 and 2015 the cost of sequencing a genome fell from 10,000 dollars to only 1,000.
The cost of nanotechnologies in robotics has also fallen, so an old project dating from the 1990s such as the robotization of intracytoplasmic injection or ICSI (where the sperm are injected directly into the cytoplasm of the egg) is now feasible. Nor is it now merely science fiction to imagine –for example– the vitrification or automatic freezing of eggs to preserve fertility.
Knowledge can also be automated. The embryologists’ climactic moment is the selection of embryos based on their morphology and other factors, and yet algorithms such as the one developed by Auxogyn in Eeva (time-lapse microscopy and image analysis in basic and clinical embryo development research. Reproductive Biomedicine Online 2013) allow the viability of the embryos to be predicted very reliably.
Additionally, the combination of robotic technology and microfluids (“lab on a chip”) makes it possible to analyze and monitor the health of the embryos, identify metabolites and other biomarkers, measure oxygen consumption or use microfluids to control the flow of (nano) pumps and (nano) valves.
The new tasks of the robot embryologist
Between 2020 and 2025 these technologies are expected to be able to automate the handling of liquids (pipetting), move small volumes horizontally at will (microfluids), facilitate computer-assisted follicle puncture, allow the placement and safe movement of eggs, and detect sperm flagellar movement.
Now in the realm of science fiction, but still plausible, it is believed that by 2030-2035 technology could automatically handle liquids and embryos, move small volumes at will in any direction, conduct biopsies, carry out complete and ultrafast genotyping, analyze the viability of embryos, and make computer-assisted ultrasound images. There is even speculation about the potential creation of artificial uteruses, as reported in The Guardian in its edition of April 25, 2017. In the animal world, a Japanese team already succeeded in developing the artificial gestation of a goat in 2013 (see the preliminary work of Sakata et al., 1998).
However, all industries and sectors have seen a strong drive toward automation since the Industrial Revolution, and the assisted reproduction laboratory is no exception. The technology is now mature because technology, biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies have invested in it. This will mean job losses for embryologists, and those who manage to keep their jobs will gradually lose skills and perform increasingly routine tasks, just as has occurred in other industries.
The skills downgrade in embryology
In 1974, in “Labor and Monopoly Capital”, Harry Braverman described what we know now as the process of deskilling skilled labor. Braverman was talking about the tasks of industrial workers, but the principle can be generalized to all environments where technology has transformed working processes. According to Braverman, workers possess a skill or craft which goes beyond mere dexterity or the ability required to perform a job. Experience not only brings mastery over materials and methods, and the knowledge of how to improve them, but a whole network of connections and social relations inside and outside the world of work that allow us to solve the problems and challenges posed by the job.
This fact been observed not only in the factory –for example by the anthropologist Michael Burawoy in the 1970s– but in much more technified environments such as call centers or the videogame industry, as in the interesting work by Bonnie Nardi. According to Braverman’s thesis, when we move from a model of skilled work to another more industrialized one based on standardization and repetition, workers undeniably become more efficient, but the skill or craft becomes redundant.
Returning to embryology, the experience has not yet been tried in the reproductive laboratory, but it is about to begin, thanks to industry 4.0. Technology has reached a point where this highly-skilled and craftsmanlike scientific work can be automated, leading to a possible surfeit of jobs, while the embryologists who remain will undergo Braverman’s deskilling process.