Robotics trends: Will robots lead to global mass unemployment?

Robotics trends: Will robots lead to global mass unemployment?

By Abdul Montaqim

Posted 26 Feb 2016 | 18:00 GMT


Opinion is divided as to whether or not the widespread adoption of robots will lead to worldwide mass unemployment and economic devastation. Estimates vary as to how many jobs robots have already taken, but some of the forecasts are actually quite worrying for the working man and woman of the future.

Some people say that robots will probably be take lower-skilled jobs. Taxi drivers are clearly vulnerable as a result of Uber, even before the cab-hailing app maker launches its own brand of autonomous cars. Uber has this week been valued at $50 billion in its latest funding round, and is all set to expand into India and China, after having become dominant in Europe and the US.

Others go further in their vision of robots as job stealers: they say the robots won’t stop at lower-skilled jobs – they’ll come after your job too; or more to the point, my job. For even people in jobs that could be considered “creative”, such as writers, there is a real worry, what with well-known news agencies now using robots to write their sports reports for them.

For example, Associated Press is using the Wordsmith artificially intelligent writing software to produce more than 4,000 business articles per quarter, a 14-fold increase over the output achieved by the agency’s human writers previously.

And the even the genuinely creative jobs, such as music making? A young Ray Kurzweil proved in the 1960s that computers can compose music (see video above). 

However, whether artificially intelligent robots or computers can make films and take on more complex and involving tasks like that is open to question. Or is it? Maybe we’re grasping at straws here. It’s long been known that Hollywood and all the creative industries use formulas of some description or another. And if it’s a formula, there’s arguably nothing better than a computer and artificial intelligence to help you apply it.

No. The best we can hope for is to work with the machines. We probably can’t beat them. We can only join them. At the moment, there’s too few of them to worry about. But that won’t be the situation for long, with prices of components falling and computing power increasing.

It’s an issue that is concerning many technologists and others, including Google’s former CEO, Eric Schmidt. Speaking last year at Davos, the annual meeting of business leaders and politicians from leading economies of the world, Schmidt said: “The race is between computers and people, and the people need to win. I am clearly on that side. In this fight, it is very important that we find the things that humans are really good at.”

What he thinks humans can do to resist the onslaught from the unholy trinity of computers, AI and robots Schmidt didn’t clearly articulate.

Schmidt is one of those who are convinced that it’s not just the low-skilled jobs the robots have their visual sensors trained on. “There is quite a bit of research that middle class jobs that are relatively highly skilled are being automated out,” he said.

In fact, his observation was consistent with something called Moravec’s paradox, a discovery made by artificial intelligence and robotics researchers, which suggests that computers are actually quite good at doing what humans consider high-skilled jobs – it’s the low-skilled jobs where they’re not so clever.

Strictly speaking, Schmidt was talking about computers and artificial intelligence. But they are of course inextricably linked to robotics. Talking about robotics without being concerned with the developments in computing and AI would be somewhat incomplete.

According to the International Federation of Robotics, the total number of robots in the world in 2013 was about 1.6 million at most. Since then, industrial robots have been selling at a rate of around 200,000 a year. Which means that the total number could be around 2 million now.

Of course, 2 million robots is not even a drop in the ocean when compared to the number of humans there are on the planet. One average-sized city has more humans than 2 million. But in the not-too-distant future, it’s quite realistic to suggest that there will be an exponential growth in the robot population.

In terms of numbers, perhaps the largest growth will be in the market for domestic robots, or home robots. They could be bought for purely entertainment purposes as a toy, or as an appliance which has a useful function in the smart home of the future, and become as indispensable as a washing machine or a dishwasher.

But while some domestic robots may replace the role of caregivers to the elderly, the number of jobs potentially lost by millions of people buying robots for their homes is perhaps not as significant as millions of businesses buying robots to replace their workers.

And as robots become cheaper to build and cheaper to buy, the economic imperative will inevitably mean that millions more robots will find their way to gainful employment. Gainful for their employers, but not so much for the people who lose their jobs because of them.

In China, at least one factory has been reported to have an almost all-robot workforce. The Changying Precision Technology Company is located in Dongguan City, Guangdong province, China. It produces parts for mobile phones. It used to have 650 employees. Now, as a result of the company installing robots, only 60 employees remain, and that number will be further reduced to 20.

The owners say they have more than doubled production as a result of the robots. Not only that, the number of defective products manufactured has gone from 25 per cent to 5 per cent. So, human error margin = 25 per cent, robot error margin = 5 per cent.

Another factory in the same China town, the Shenzhen Evenwin Precision Technology, has also embarked on a plan to build an all-robot factory. And it is by no means the only one.

Paradoxically, given its 1.6 billion population, China is facing a shortage of labour. Because of its “one-child policy”, started in 1978, the country now has fewer working-age men and women than it needs in some areas. Or at least that is what is claimed. Another reason for China’s move to robotics could be the country’s determination to remain as the workshop of the world, the global leader in manufacturing, no matter what the cost in jobs.

Whatever the reasons, few would argue that the robot population is increasing fast, and will go up even faster over the next few years. Despite all the reports about record sales of industrial robots, relatively few factories use them as much as they could, partly because they cost a lot to buy.

Robots pay back their owners faster than ever before, or the “return on investment” (ROI) is more favourable than it used to be, but they are still out of reach for many smaller factories.

Despite capturing the headlines of late as the world’s biggest buyer of industrial robots, China is not even in the top 10 countries when it comes to robot density. According to the IFR, the 10 countries with the highest number of industrial robots for every 10,000 people employed in manufacturing are:

  • South Korea, 347
  • Japan, 339
  • Germany, 261
  • Italy, 159
  • Sweden, 157
  • Denmark, 145
  • United States, 135
  • Spain, 131
  • Finland, 130
  • Taiwan, 129

In terms of the percentage of workers who will be replaced by robots, it’s believed that as much as 80 per cent of workers could be replaced by robots right now, if employers were of a mind to make such a revolutionary transformation not just to their businesses, but to the world.

“In principle, there is no problem with imagining a transformation in the labor market that substitutes technology for workers for 80 per cent of current jobs and then expands employment in the remaining 20 per cent to absorb the entire labor force,” writes Stuart W. Elliott, in an article called “Anticipating a Luddite Revival”.

Elliot is an analyst for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and his article appeared in Issues in Science and Technology last year.

But although theoretically it could be done, it’s unlikely to happen for many years. Not just because of the threat of modern-day Luddites, as Elliot suggests, but because a serious amount of investment would be required to make it happen, and companies are unlikely to do that.

The utilisation of robotics and automation in industry will increase, but most likely at a slow rate over the next decade or two. Meanwhile, the economy will change to one in which entirely new jobs are created in industries that never existed before, or business sectors which were previously relatively small will grow and employ more people.

No obvious solution comes to mind, but the space industry does seem to offer one growth area. As more people, organisations and businesses become interested in space tourism and space exploration, it’s likely to be a much bigger employer in the coming years.

And despite there being so many mega-cities in the world, even more cities will be created and more people will live in them. The world’s urban population is thought to have outnumbered that of the countryside in or around 2008. Of the world’s total 7 billion, more than 3.5 billion now live in cities. China’s urban population is though to have exceeded its rural population in 2013.

All these people need places to live. Billions live in slums. That’s likely to change. It’s probably inevitable.

Until now, construction, even of a small home with all the modern facilities, has been too expensive for the vast majority of the world’s population. But with construction robots, the overall cost of construction is likely to come down. At which point the benefit of having robots around filters down to the working man and woman at the bottom of the pay scale, or no-pay scale, instead of simply translating into more profits for construction companies remains to be seen.

Two scenarios could emerge: one where mega-construction companies monopolise the technology, or smaller teams of builders invest in robots and take on more ambitious projects. Either way, building will be cheaper.

The first robotic bricklayers are just now being released into the market, and it seems obvious that there is a demand for them. Whether they will create more jobs than they eliminate is difficult to answer at this stage.

It probably depends on whether the rate of growth in new buildings increases or stays the same. The property market in some countries is propped up by artificial scarcity created by ancient or restrictive planning and building restrictions.

Though they sound radical, these are realistic scenarios. But what is even more realistic is the concept put forward by industry conglomerates in Europe and in America.

In Europe, it’s called Industrie 4.0, and in the US, Industry 4.0, and it refers to a number of transformative developments in manufacturing and other sectors, brought about largely by robotics and automation. Far from worrying about job losses, proponents of Industrie 4.0 believe it will create jobs and increase revenue.

Then there are “futurists” such as Thomas Fry, who lists 24 future industries that “will lead to an era of super employment”.


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