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Can robots and workers coexist?

9 June Jun 2016 1129 09 June 2016
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In recent years, there has been a revival of concerns that automation and digitalisation might after all result in a jobless future and increase inequality. Are robots going to steal our jobs?

Many studies over the years find that recent and future advances in computing power and artificial intelligence may lead to the automation of a much broader range of tasks than just routine tasks, including those that were previously the exclusive domain of humans. Robots are learning on their own. Self-driving cars seem just a few regulations away from our city streets. “Today’s technology is different than what we’ve seen in the past, when many manual laborers were forced to skill up and move into more sophisticated jobs,” says Martin Ford, the author of the recent book Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future.

Almost half of those currently employed in the United States are at risk of being put out of work by automation in the next decade or two, according to a widely cited study from 2013, which identified transportation, logistics and administrative occupations as the most vulnerable. The study demolishes also the myth of hi-tech as the biggest job-creator sector: “The share of US workers employed in hi-tech enterprises established after year 2000 is just a 0,5% of the total. A concrete example of this phenomenon is the difference between the 140.000 employees at Kodak and the just 600 workers at Instagram”.

Yet, last January, the World Economic Forum predicted the Fourth Industrial Revolution, combined with other socio-economic and demographic changes, will transform labour markets in the next five years, leading to a net loss of over 5 million jobs in 15 major developed and emerging economies. Concurrently, this loss will be partially offset by the creation of 2.1 million new jobs, mainly in what the WEF calls “several smaller job families.” Of course, the impact of disruption will vary considerably across industry and gender as well as job type. For example, Healthcare is expected to experience the greatest negative impact in terms of jobs in the next five years, says the report.

Are we doomed to a future of dismal technological progress? Probably, at least for Stephen Hawking. The well-known British physicist and author warns that if machine-produced wealth is not shared, technology will drive “ever-increasing inequality”.

However, some experts think that those studies that insistently focus on technology’s replacement role fails to analyse how it also can be complementary. Job loss in some occupations will certainly continue, but it will be accompanied by gains in different fields, just as in the past.

In a paper research released last month, authors from the OECD may have added some clarity to the debate ‘finding that on average, across the 21 OECD countries, ‘9% of jobs rather than 47%, as proposed by Frey and Osborne face a high automatibility.’ The researchers argue that estimated share of “jobs at risk” must not be equated with actual or expected employment losses from technological advances for three reasons. First, the utilisation of new technologies is a slow process, due to economic, legal and societal hurdles, so that technological substitution often does not take place as expected. Second, even if new technologies are introduced, workers can adjust to changing technological endowments by switching tasks, thus preventing technological unemployment. Third, technological change also generates additional jobs through demand for new technologies and through higher competitiveness.

The study also found heterogeneities across OECD countries. For instance, while the share of automatable jobs is 6 % in Korea, the corresponding share is 12 % in Austria. Differences between countries may reflect general differences in workplace organisation, differences in previous investments into automation technologies as well as differences in the education of workers across countries.

The main conclusion from the paper is that instead of blaming technology, we should be rolling up our sleeves to ensure that people who lose their jobs to technology are being reemployed in higher-skilled jobs. “Destruction of large numbers of jobs unlikely, therefore, the likely challenge for the future lies in coping with rising inequality and ensuring sufficient (re-)training especially for low qualified workers”.

Photo Credits: Getty Images/Yoshikazu Tsuno

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