A widespread fear that we’ll soon be usurped by our more efficient mechanical counterparts is rippling throughout the modern world and spreading like wildfire. The fear of job obsolescence is settling in the nooks and crannies of our human inadequacies and, much like the robots themselves, doesn’t seem to be going away.
The fear of robots has spawned a litany of dystopic films and books – each one a harbinger of the collapse of the world as we know it. On the other hand, robots have also been heralded as a solution to languishing productivity levels. If we could somehow leverage these new automated technologies to our own advantage then the benefits to our economy – and to us – could be enormous. So, what is all the hubbub about? Are we going to lose our jobs to something resembling Optimus Prime or will R2-D2 soon be doing the jobs we don’t want to? If the robots are coming, what can they do for us and for the economy?
There are the naysayers who doubt that we can coexist harmoniously with robots. We face a rapidly increasing population (set to exceed 11 billion by 2100), a growing burden on the workforce in the developed world as life expectancy levels soar, and serious climate change issues. But despite these potentially cataclysmic forces, it is automation that is routinely lambasted as the blight on our future.
Fewer jobs also means less money and spending, so robots – seemingly the modern scapegoat – are also predicted by some to destroy capitalism. On the other side of the debate, many people working in the robotics sector dismiss this idea of mass job theft as an irrational fear of robots, in part created by the evil robots portrayed in pop culture and exacerbated by the mainstream media. The truth of it is, although AI has surpassed us in some areas – such as chess and financial transactions – we’re further away from replicating human-like intelligence than people realise. It is also far easier to predict job losses than it is to predict the new types of jobs that will open up as a result of automation. Despite its most negative aspects being sensationalised by the press, a key finding of the PwC Economic Outlook report is that “new automation technologies in areas like AI and robotics will create some totally new jobs in the digital technology area and, through productivity gains, generate additional wealth and spending that will support additional jobs of existing kinds, primarily in services sectors that are less easy to automate”.
Books such as Martin Ford’s Rise of the Robots mark the crest of a wave of despair about our future in an automated world. But these concerns are by no means new. Ford cites a petition to U.S. President Lyndon Johnson in 1964 with 34 senior signatories who wanted to draw attention to three revolutions, one of which was “The Cybernation Revolution”. The signatories believed that “potentially unlimited output can be achieved by systems of machines which require little cooperation from human beings”. Unlike Ford, they believed that “cybernation, properly understood and used, is the road out of want and toward a decent life” for the “millions of impoverished”.
The notion of robots being restorative – able to restore people to a “decent life” – is interesting in an age that so readily fears automation and AI. It is an idea that, arguably needs resurgence if we as a society are going to benefit from putting machines to work. If robotics can increase our productivity levels, even by just 1%, this could provide a much-needed boost to the sluggish world economies, which have been limping on since the financial crisis of 2008. In the UK, this would also address the widening productivity gulf compared to other developed economies, where the UK currently lags 18% below the average level of other members of the Group of Seven, behind America, France, Italy and Germany.
More productive workforces mean a more productive UK economy, and 1% growth across the economy could add almost £20bn to our national output, equalling about £250 to the average worker’s pay. With this in mind, perhaps it’s time to consider a world where humans are enhanced by robots, rather than replaced by them. It is without doubt that the robots are coming. So that leaves us with two choices: we can either worry ourselves to death about what this means for us and our jobs, or, we can stop pitting man and machine against each other, and use them to our own benefit.
Common fears that the next wave of technology – in this case AI and robots – will take jobs unfairly assume that we’re unable to adapt our education and employment to benefit from the new technology. History disproves this. In the 19th century, 80% of the US labour force worked on farms, but today that figure is just 2%. In this instance and in many others, “mechanisation didn’t destroy the economy, it made it better off”. The same can be said of tech in retail; after introducing supermarket scanners the number of cashiers actually grew. By the same token, no one today bemoans the fact that there are no jobs cutting ice on the Hudson River because we all have refrigerators, or remembers with fondness the hours spent listlessly waiting for travel agents to find our dream holiday. Now, thanks to the advent of the internet, we do it ourselves. Similarly, the introduction of ATMs in banks meant reduced costs which allowed banks to open more branches and increase the number of bank clerks. This in turn enabled bank clerks to broaden their skillsets and increase their interpersonal skills by taking on more varied, less monotonous tasks.
For some, progress in AI and robotics is simply the next organic and logical step in the evolution of technology – “the latest stage in a much longer revolution in information technology, stretching back to mainframe computers after World War Two, spreading to personal computers in the 1980s and the Internet in the 1990s”. Most importantly, is the fact that “throughout these successive waves of disruption employment has carried on rising” rather than declining.
In many cases, technology hasn’t eradicated the need for humans, it has simply altered our roles. While it’s easy to make a calculated guess at which roles are most susceptible to automation or which workers will be displaced first, it’s much harder to predict the new roles that will be necessary to create, use or maintain these new technologies.
So with all of this mindboggling information, what can we do? Well, what we can’t do is remain inactive. If we want to boost our productivity then what difference does it make if the hands helping us are made of metal or flesh? Human sinew or copper wiring – it’s still another pair of hands. We should also be encouraging enterprise, education and training in these areas. Like many things, maybe the problem can be distilled down into a simple framing problem. As Rich Walker of Shadow Robot puts it: “If you mention military robots and then ask people if you want them caring for the elderly, funnily enough people will say no. If you talk about the problems of care and then suggest robots caring for the elderly, people will say ‘What a great idea!’”.
If you enjoyed this, you might like our interview with robotics expert David Bisset.