The pictures in this post confirm it’s happening: robots are helping consumers in the stores, delivering fresh towels into hotels, welcoming guests into Japanese banks and hotels, serving drinks prepared by them on cruise ships, patrolling the streets or dancing for kids at hospital.
As they are becoming more and more equipped with artificial intelligence algorithms and high definition cameras, their interaction is moving into the emotional side, it’s less mechanical and cold. They call it “second machine age”, because it’s replacing minds as well as muscles. Apparently humans will continue to have a sort of “exclusivity” only in the non-routine / cognitive area of activity.
The debate around robots and automation produced two opposing parties: those who believe robots will destroy and steal human jobs and those who are confident technology, progress and innovation will produce benefits for the society. So what’s the future of work?
They both have good reasons. Throughout history, technology has been a job creator, not a job destroyer. Advances in technology create new jobs and industries even as they displace some of the older ones. Optimists say that more robots will lead to greater productivity and economic growth. They often refer to the example that 200 years ago 70% of the US population was into agriculture, now less than 1% live on the farm, but obviously the workers had just moved into other jobs and US is not poor and has not defaulted.
A group of “extreme” optimists are usually called techno-utopian: technology, automation and robots will save us and give us back free time and fulfill our needs. The idea that robots could make employment itself optional may sound fantastic and I agree it’s a bit borderline, because what I see is:
- it won’t happen for free… ask to Google, Facebook, Amazon, Foxconn and all the others investing money in technologies for a profit;
- humans find satisfaction and self-actualization in “doing” rather than in consuming or being just lazy because a robot does everything;
- different areas of the world are at different stage of development and the assumption that robots will do the tasks we don’t like cannot be applied equally everywhere and at the same speed;
To introduce the position of the pessimists, let me show an interesting graph about recent trends in gdp, corporate investments and employment proposed by Andrew McAfee in his blog.
Although the red line is scaring, I might accept the (inverse) correlation with the increase in automation and robot adoption, but I’m not sure about the causation yet.
The Nobel award Paul Krugman reinforced the alert with his words: “Smart machines may make higher GDP possible, but also reduce the demand for people—including smart people. So we could be looking at a society that grows ever richer, but in which all the gains in wealth accrue to whoever owns the robots.”.
Let me add a few considerations:
- open source platforms are everywhere, robots will be driven by software, nobody will probably own in an exclusive way the new technologies;
- if robots produce cheaper and better products, but also mass unemployment, nobody will have the money to buy them, so prices and wages will decline;
- many countries have a minimum wage legislation and protections for the working classes and laws won’t allow for the existence of a monopoly of robot makers and users.
We don’t know where the right answer sits, but the reality is that experts are divided. It’s not me saying this, it comes from a panel from HBR: “Experts Have No Idea If Robots Will Steal Your Job”
I’ve been into corporations for long time and I see from researches and surveys that the majority of employees is (actively) disengaged, some hate their job , unsatisfaction is predominant and a lot of people work just to earn a pay. We do jobs we don’t like to earn money we spend in personal interests that hopefully compensate for that unsatisfaction. If the tasks we dislike will be taken over by robots, that would be positive in principle, as long as we continue to have enough money for living.
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There are certain jobs that only humans have the capacity to do, so it’s easy to predict that more people will move in the non-routine / cognitive area of business, because it will be left to humans and probably will be coincident with the personal interests and passions. In his essay The World of 2001, Arthur Clarke wrote: “the main result of all these developments will be to eliminate 99 percent of human activity … if we look at humanity as it is constituted today.”
Is this 1% enough to give a work and a living to everybody? Obviously not, but the society is now a bit different than Clarke’s 70’; that “as it is constituted to day” has changed. The point is that western economies are already “services” based economies, so we already play in that upper right box, then I expect robots and automation will allow us to deliver a higher level of service with the same or similar level of human involvement, rather than stealing jobs. Which reinforces the concept that automation, robots and artificial intelligence are tools at our service.
For corporations adopting new technologies, productivity will grow, but the overall pie won’t get bigger because of declining prices. Armies of expensive lawyers will be replaced by cheaper software, cost of salaries will decline for some routine activities, but companies will ultimately need a broad and large base of employed population anyway, otherwise there will be no one to pay for all their services and products, so due to lower wages they will re-start to offer jobs.
As companies won’t be able to find a solution to macro-economy issues, governments will intervene, by enforcing taxation on technology, improving education and promoting social equality to avoid the creation of a permanent unemployable underclass. Some economists speak about the guaranteed basic income, also referred to as unconditional or universal basic income; it’s actually a very simple idea: everyone in society receives a single basic income to provide for a comfortable living whether they choose to work or not. It’s simple, but I don’t understand how they are going to finance it.
To provide a conclusion on the future of work, I agree robots are going to steal human jobs, but at a different pace than pessimists imagine because the private market cannot afford to see mass unemployment (when wages will go down, companies will find convenient to hire more people again) and at the same time technology will create new jobs and markets. Governments will try to react, with taxation and other mechanics to redistribute wealth, mass re-training of people already working and improving education. People will probably work less hours compared to the past, earn lower wages to spend on cheaper items and will dedicate more time to non routine / cognitive tasks, sometimes coincident with their passions (culture, writing, art, music etc…).
This won’t be better or worse than the past, simply different.
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