Will Robots Steal Our Jobs?

 
 

With automation increasing and entering new areas, such as surgery and driving, will humans be made fully redundant? Orla Keaveney investigates whether we will still have jobs in 100 years’ time.

 

As technology rapidly becomes more advanced, many are beginning to wonder if robotics will soon outstrip the capabilities of humans. If that happens, what will that mean for a world where unemployment is already a major social issue?

From lamp lighters to switchboard operators, there have been countless jobs that have disappeared from modern industry. However, these losses have given way to new career paths; nobody could have guessed even ten years ago that someone could make YouTube videos or post selfies for a living.

Although some fears of robotics have proven to be unfounded in the past, it is impossible to know for sure which industries will become obsolete. Kevin J Denny, an Associate Professor at UCD’s School of Economics, suggests that “it seems likely that very low-skill or very high-skill occupations are the safest. So it’s unlikely that cleaners, for example, will be replaced by robots.” This may come as a surprise, since many people would expect that low-skill jobs would be the easiest targets for automation.

“It seems likely that very low-skill or very high-skill occupations are the safest.”

While computers are far better than humans at doing simple, repetitive tasks quickly and efficiently, there are still aspects of robotics that have still not caught up with the complexity of human evolution. For many minimum-wage jobs that vary over time or require physical agility, it’s simply more cost-effective to pay someone rather than design a robot specifically for the task.

Similarly, very high-skill jobs, particularly those that involve more intuition or creativity, are unlikely to be replaced by automation. That said, certain aspects of these industries could be performed better by machines.

If high- and low-skilled workers are safe, where does this leave people in the middle? Professor Denny imagines that “jobs that require moderate skill could well be replaced. If so, we will observe a hollowing out of the labour market. Driverless cars could put taxi-drivers out of business. A lot of the functions of bar staff could probably be automated… You can pay in supermarkets by self-service. Could, for example, barbers or hairdressers be automated?”

Before getting too anxious, it’s important to consider that these changes won’t happen overnight. No matter how fast technology develops, society needs time to adjust. Sarah Parlane, another UCD economist, notes that people generally do not “care whether the cars they are driving have been assembled by a robot, as one would probably never know who did what in their car but when it comes to direct health care, or education, or safety, some may be reluctant to let a robot do the job. Some combinations are scary: robots with syringes, dentist robots…” Even if machines are provably better at certain tasks, the market is affected by public opinion at least as much as technology.

“With robots generating greater profits, the extra revenue could potentially be put back into employing people into currently short-staffed, and potentially more fulfilling, jobs.”

In the meantime, Parlane imagines that the best strategy to mitigate the effects of automation on unemployment would be “to provide constant training and offer to all the possibility to learn and adapt to new environments. In fact, it demands that we have a better understanding of mechanisms at play.”

With robots generating greater profits, the extra revenue could potentially be put back into employing people into currently short-staffed, and potentially more fulfilling, jobs: “A country could always do with more people that provide more services,” says Parlane. “More people to look after the elderly and individuals with special needs… Having one teacher for 15 students in primary and secondary schools would be better than one for 40 students.”

If there is less demand for a human workforce, countries could even implement policies that spread the remaining workload more evenly among their citizens. In France, the government passed a law that heavily taxed companies that made their employees work more than 35 hours a week, in order to balance the gap between the unemployed and the overworked. Although this model is far from perfect (France still has the highest rate of unemployment in Europe), it does pave the way for creative solutions if automation does have a major impact on career opportunities.

The world we live in today is virtually unrecognisable from the world thirty years ago. How advancements in robotic engineering will change the future is yet to be seen, but it seems unlikely that the robots are going to be stealing all our jobs.

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