Will “the robots” really take our jobs?

Rhiannon Jones
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An innocent-looking robot peers up at the camera

You might have noticed that digital technology is causing quite a stir. Whether you’re still in employment, or if “the robots” have already taken your job, you’ll no doubt be curious to know where AI-driven robotics might lead us. (Personally, my eyes are permanently fixed on the ability of AI software to write creatively… stick with me, they’re quite not there yet).

Don’t panic: almost all new developments in technology have led to fewer jobs in one particular field or another for humans – the point being, usually, to make our lives easier. But, will the introduction of artificial intelligence be any different? It is likely to be the most significant change in technology we’ve seen in a while. Does that mean it’s time to make like the Luddites and destroy all the robots (before, err, they get better than us at fighting too)?

This is a fairly complicated issue, and one that involves a lot of guesswork. But since we don’t have a crystal ball, let’s look at some of the arguments for and against the idea that AI-driven robots are about to flood LinkedIn.

Will robots really take our jobs?

A recent report by McKinsey stands firmly in the doom-laden corner, arguing that between 400 and 800 million jobs will be lost by 2030 (for reference, the entire population of the EU is just over 500 million). Occupying the cheerleading corner is Deloitte, whose economists believe that robots will actually be “a great, job-creating machine” – they claim that since 1871, in England and Wales at least, technology has created more jobs than it has destroyed. Those jobs have also been safer and, coincidentally, slightly more fun (would you rather work in Starbucks or a Victorian tin mine?).

Also spotted in the pessimist’s camp are some of the smartest minds and successful entrepreneurs of our time – Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, Yuval Noah Harari, and Bill Gates have all sent warning signals. I don’t particularly want to take those guys on in intellectual combat… so I won’t. But I think it’s perfectly possible that they are both right and wrong.

Yes, some jobs will be ‘taken’

Okay, I admit it. Lots of jobs will be taken by robots, including middle class jobs that have previously escaped quite lightly from technological developments. But that doesn’t necessarily mean there will be mass unemployment; people could just be working in different jobs. And maybe, like in the past, those jobs will turn out to be more enjoyable or more valuable.

Yes, automation is likely to reduce the need for humans to work in jobs like truck driving, construction, fast food preparation, and some areas of tax, law, and medicine – just like it reduced the need for humans in farms, laundries, textile mills and factories at the start of the 20th century. And, yes, losing those jobs will likely have a significant impact on the humans who work in the industries affected – try asking a coal miner whether they’re happy to be out of work…

…But maybe there will be better jobs?

The Luddites didn’t exactly predict that we would see huge increases in jobs that require human connections (like teaching, nursing, psychology), human creativity (more books, music, films – anyone?) or something in between (there are far more ice cream shops now than 100 years ago, which I’m pretty ecstatic about). And maybe that’s the key to getting it right this time –  identifying where society would benefit from moving human labour away from jobs that machines can do, to ones they can’t.

More teachers, nurses, and carers? More artists? More emergency service workers? The ability to nap while your car drives you around? A lot of people would vote for those things. Including me.

Are we better than robots anyway?

There’s another aspect to this: humans enjoy and are reassured by human connections. That’s why ATMs haven’t replaced bank tellers (in fact, there are more living, breathing bank tellers than when ATMs were introduced, because companies used the savings generated by ATMs to employ more people) and it’s why so many shoppers still don’t like to use self-checkout machines.

No matter how good AI gets, and how clever it can make robots and machines, some things seem irreplaceable. For example, we love, and spend lots of money on, sports – which is a huge global industry and an area where robots are unlikely to make things more entertaining. Robot soccer or basketball would be funny at first, but in the long term it probably won’t be more popular than watching Messi take another glorious free kick or LeBron shooting hoops. I’m willing to bet you’ll never hear someone say, “I love the way BasketBot has scored all 156,788 three-pointers attempted this season”.

Of course, I could be wrong. In which case… Robots, I was on your side all along… And, BasketBot – keep ’em comin’!!!

A threat or an opportunity?

We think artificial intelligence is pretty great – it’s what powers Ocean.io (check it out)! But, what do you think? Are robots a threat or an opportunity? And who will suffer or benefit the most? We’d love to know your take.

More on our possible robot future:

Want some other takes on how robots could affect us?

  • This paper from the Oxford Martin School puts forward the economic case (robots will improve productivity, meaning more money for other things, generating jobs elsewhere and better overall lifestyles).
  • PWC assess which jobs will be most at risk in this survey.
  • Ron Miller at TechCrunch suggests that robots might not be as smart as we think.
  • Will Knight argues that AI is far too complicated to predict in this piece for MIT’s Technology Review.
  • Lastly, Laurie Pennie believes that robots taking our jobs could shift the gender imbalance in the workplace in this interesting take for Wired.

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