Robots: Are They a Threat to the Workforce and Should We Be Worried?

Published: 01/12/2017 and written by Patrick Smith

Robots: Are They a Threat to the Workforce and Should We Be Worried?
As technology progresses and becomes increasingly advanced, it was inevitable that the day would come when robots would become a real threat to the workforce. While some industries are becoming ever more dependent on robots, others are expected to be safe from automation – for a few more years at least. Short term loan provider, Mr Lender, took a look at which industries are under threat from robots, and just how the economy and your personal finances could be affected by them.

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How will robots affect the workforce?

Just as any future event is hard to predict, so are the futures of robots and employment. In 1930, Economist John Maynard Keynes, predicted that his grandchildren’s generation will work just 15 hours per work, which cannot be further from how the future did in fact pan out.

While some experts will take a more pessimistic approach and say that the introduction of robots to the workforce will have a huge negative impact on employment, others say that we will go through a period of redeployment as opposed to one of unemployment. Jobs will simply be readjusted to become accustomed to new technologies, and new jobs will be created to help improve and build this new workforce.

There’s no denying that there are a number of industries that are at risk of becoming fully dependent on robots and machinery in the future – the list below shows just a small sample of this. However there are a few industries which are expected to be safe from automation for the foreseeable future. Author, Martin Ford, says there are three industries in particular which are safe for now, including any job which involves “genuine creativity, such as being an artist, being a scientist, developing a new business strategy”, jobs which involve forming relationships with people such as nurses, and jobs which are unpredictable such as an on-call tradesperson.

Ford says “for now, humans are still the best at creativity, but there’s a caveat there. I can’t guarantee you that in 20 years a computer won’t be the most creative entity on the planet. There are already computers that can paint original works of art. So, in 20 years who knows how it’s going to go?”

However, while it’s nice to think that jobs are safe and the employment rate won’t take a hit, the statistics don’t lie. A report from Forrester Research found that while artificial intelligence (AI) will create 15 million new jobs in the US alone over the next 10 years, 25million could be lost over the same period because of it. Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PwC) found that 30% of jobs in the UK are potentially under threat from AI, meaning 10 million workers could be replaced over a period of 15 years.

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Jon Andrews, Head of Technology and Investment at PwC said “there’s no doubt that AI and robotics will rebalance what jobs look like in the future, and that some are more susceptible than others.” He then went on to say “what’s important is making sure that the potential gains from automation are shared more widely across society and no one gets left behind.

“Responsible employers need to ensure they encourage flexibility and adaptability in their people so we are all ready for the change. In the future, knowledge will be a commodity so we need to shift our thinking on how we skill and up-skill future generations. Creative and critical thinking will be highly valued, as will emotional intelligence.”

According to PwC’s Chief Economist, John Hawksworth, it’s jobs which require manual labour that are more likely to give way to artificial intelligence first. When talking about the findings of the report, he said “a key driver of our industry-level estimates is the fact that manual and routine tasks are more susceptible to automation, while social skills are relatively less automatable.

“That said, no industry is entirely immune from future advances in robotics and AI. Automating more manual and repetitive tasks will eliminate some existing jobs but could also enable some workers to focus on higher value, more rewarding and creative work, removing the monotony from our day jobs.

“By boosting productivity – a key UK weakness over the past decade – and so generating wealth, advances in robotics and AI should also create additional jobs in less automatable parts of the economy as this extra wealth is spent or invested.”

It has also been said that robots could be introduced to the workplace in as little as five years time. Shamus Rae, Head of Innovation and Investments for KPMG in the UK, said “you can imagine a world in five years time when teams are made up of company employees, crowd specialists and cognitive robots – all creating and collaborating together.

“The robot would gain experience from its many interactions – potentially thousands or more each day – and gradually improve its responses. People would be involved every step of the way, directing the way the robot learns.”

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Jobs which have already been lost to the robots

With the threat of an automated workforce a very real one, it has already been happening around us for many, many years. Since the age of industrialisation, humans have been made redundant only to be replaced by new technologies and machinery. This list shows just a handful which have already been made virtually non-existent by machinery and robots:

Bowling Alley Pinsetter:

Once upon a time, someone would have been employed to reset the bowling pins each time they were knocked down. As technology advanced, there was virtually no need for this type of job anymore and so humans were replaced by machines.

Lift Operator:

There was a time when a Lift Operator would be employed to send lifts up and down. While today it’s as simple as pressing a button, it used to be a much more complex task involving great timing skills to work out the right time to stop the lift.

Knocker Uppers:

Believe it or not, but alarm clocks haven’t always been around since the dawn of time. There was a time when they didn’t exist, but people still needed to be woken up, right? Welcome to the Knocker Uppers. A Knocker Upper was the alarm clock of its day – a person who would be employed to go around to each of their customers’ houses with a long stick and bang on their window until they woke up. Once wind up alarm clocks were invented there was just no need for a Knocker Upper anymore and so they were replaced.

Industries under threat from robots

While many jobs have been lost to the machines, studies have suggested that the following industries are most at risk in the coming years:

Transportation:

With the introduction of driverless vehicles, it seems that it won’t be long until any people who make a living from driving will become redundant. It’s also been said that buses and even airplanes could become self-operating in years to come – some trains on the London Underground have already been made driverless, so why not other forms of transport?

Restaurants:

Surprisingly, one industry at threat of being taken over by robots is catering. There are already robots able to cook and flip burgers, even bartender bots who can mix up a cocktail or two. Reports have suggested that fast food chefs have an 81% chance of being replaced by robots at some point in the future.

One fast food chain in America, Carl Jrs., has in fact announced plans of providing a fully automated restaurant experience. There are already similar restaurants in operation, such as Eatsa in America, and Febo in Amsterdam, where customers choose what they want from an almost ‘vending machine’ style wall. The wall is filled with cubbyholes, each containing a different item of food. Customers then insert their coins into the machine and make their choices. Behind the scenes, chefs prepare the food and refill any empty cubbyholes as and when they appear. The system requires little to no interaction between customers and staff and is almost entirely automated.

Retail:

With the introduction of self service tills in supermarkets, the retail industry is at risk of becoming fully automated at some point in the future with little to no need for staff in store. Self service tills are being installed more and more across the UK as fewer people apply for jobs within the industry.

Hotels:

The hotel industry is already taking advantage of robotic technology and is yet another field where AI could take over. One hotel in San Francisco uses towel delivery robots as part of their service, while the Henn-na Hotel in Japan is run by a staff force consisting of 90% robots.

Healthcare:

If you needed an operation or needed to be given an anaesthetic, would you trust a robot to be involved? Well, robots are already being used in this way and are even able to help diagnose illnesses in some cases. Babylon Health has begun a pilot scheme where patients in five London boroughs are put through to a robot when they call the non-emergency 111 line. Patients are asked to submit their symptoms, where a robot will then assess whether they need to go to A&E, a pharmacist, or if no action is required at all.

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What do the tech giants say?

Both Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder of Facebook, and Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft, have had their say on the development of AI. Zuckerberg recently spoke at the University of Harvard on the matter, where he said “our generation will have to deal with tens of millions of jobs replaced by automation like self-driving cars and trucks. When our parents graduated, purpose reliably came from your job, your church, your community. But today, technology and automation are eliminating many jobs. Membership in communities is declining. Many people feel disconnected and depressed, and are trying to fill a void.”

He went on to address the students directly as he said “class of 2017, you are graduating into a world that needs purpose. It’s up to you to create it. Taking on big meaningful projects is the first thing we can do to create a world where everyone has a sense of purpose. The second is redefining equality to give everyone the freedom they need to pursue purpose.”

It’s not all doom and gloom

As the facts above show, we’ve been tackling advances in technology for years. While a robotic workforce is a scary prospect, it’s not too dissimilar to the changes faced during the industrial revolution. The UK employment rate is currently at 75.1% – the highest it has ever been since records began in 1971, and technology has advanced at a staggeringly fast rate over this period too. So while the type of threat to the workforce we’re facing today is rather different what the Georgians and Victorians faced, the statistics from the last 46 years show that advancements to technology have little to no effect on the rate of employment, and – if anything – boosts it.

Another thing to consider is that the manufacturing of artificial intelligence is highly expensive in itself, let alone the costs of implementing it in the workplace and training staff to work alongside it. This means that many employers may still choose to employ manual labour to keep costs down.

Should we be concerned about losing our jobs to artificial intelligence? That ultimately depends on the industry you work in and your ability to adapt your skill set. Time.com has a handy guide on their website which lets you search if your job is safe from the threat of robots or not. There are a few jobs which don’t appear in the search box, however there are still plenty which do so you may still find your job on there.

It’s also important to bear in mind how advances in technology have shaped the world we live in today and how it has in fact helped rather than hindered us. While there may well be a number of jobs lost or simply redeployed as robots become ever more present in the workplace, there will also be a number of jobs created and potentially a whole new industry entirely could be born. After all, we’re going to need an industry dedicated to building and maintaining the robots, right?

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