Is Archaeology Robot-Proof?

By: Genevieve Everett

I am a huge talk radio fan, specifically National Public Radio (NPR). I listen in my kitchen, and on my way to and from school. On my commute, I listen to Morning Edition and Marketplace, lots of news, traffic reports, weather, and so on. Teenage me that was blasting the Clash in my car would be really surprised by thirty year old me, listening to talk radio over music. Anyway, Marketplace has this series right now about “Robot-Proof Jobs”. According to their website, “The McKinsey Global Institute analyzed the work activities of more than 800 occupations in the U.S. to determine what percentage of a job could be automated using current technology. It turns out, a small fraction of jobs are either entirely automatable or entirely robot-proof” (Marketplace.org). This got me thinking about archaeology, and how robot-proof our profession is in the 21st century.

Some of the jobs that are listed under “0% Automatable” include: Ambulance Drivers, Animal Scientists, Astronomers, Historians, Dancers, and Music Directors and Composers. Conversely, jobs that are “100% Automatable” include: Dredge Operators, Movie Projectionists, Medical Appliance Technicians, and Slaughterers and Meat Packers (Marketplace.org). There is a clear difference between these two categories, the “0% Automatable” involve interpretation and creativity, while the “100% Automatable” jobs are labor intensive, and do not require much in the way of creativity or interpretation.

Is it possible that archaeology could be done by a robot? Could a robot be trained to dig a shovel test pit? Maybe. Can a robot consult with stakeholders in a community concerned that a federal undertaking will destroy their sacred site? Probably not. In the situation where an undertaking requires creative or alternative mitigation as opposed to traditional data recovery (excavation), could the robot deal with this decision? No. Robots are generally programed to do what they are told, so small changes would be difficult to process. Every archaeological project is different and is subject to change, because so many people are involved in decisions surrounding a project or federal undertaking. Also, interpretation of data is required when a project is done. A robot might be able to recognize different ceramic types, but it cannot see the class divide that is present across the site.  In other words, a robot cannot provide the same critical thinking and interpretation that a trained archaeologist can.

Robots are not all bad, in fact, maybe robots will be helpful to archaeologists in the future. Archaeologists already use lots of high-tech gadgets that make our lives easier, including, GPR, GIS, GPS, drones, and so on. However, much of this technology still requires a human to turn it on and operate it. That being said, technology is our friend, and robots are definitely not taking our jobs anytime soon.

IUP Department of Anthropology

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