Robot Revolution: Fear based on credible data or some cognitive bias? (Part 3/3 in the series)

Home / Artificial Intelligence / Robot Revolution: Fear based on credible data or some cognitive bias? (Part 3/3 in the series)

Let’s shift our discussion to another related topic that has gained importance in the past few years i.e. the disappearance of jobs due to automation and robot revolution. “Robots will eliminate 6% of all jobs in US by 2021”,” Will robots take our jobs and overpower us”,” The robots are taking over”,” The age of machines and Unemployment”,” The robot invasion” Alarmist headlines like these have become a norm these days. The fear of being overtaken, overthrown, outsmarted and outlived by machines has marred and belittled some of the amazing work done by scientists and engineers over the past decade. Fear that technological advances will create joblessness is not a new phenomenon and has proven groundless in the past. Such fears are generally accompanied with high unemployment during the time. 1960s were marked with fears that automation would eliminate thousands of jobs per week, while the mid-1990s recession was followed by the dot-com boom which saw drastic rise in employment rate. Employment returns when the state of economy improves. In the past several decades, the ratio of employment to population has increased rather than decreased. The graph below shows the US employment to population ratio over the decades. The grey shaded regions represent times of economic downturn. Recession in these years saw a reduction in jobs but the general trend shows increase in the ratio when the economy is stable.

Graphs for Robot article

The graph above shows the increase in the number of robots used in different countries. Evidence suggests there is essentially no relationship between the loss in manufacturing jobs and robot use. Germany had the highest increase in the usage of robots between 1993 and 2007, but lost just 19% of its manufacturing jobs between 1996 and 2012. In comparison US where robot usage was much lower lost 33% jobs. Trend similar to Germany were seen in Korea, France, and Italy where fewer manufacturing jobs were lost as compared to United States even as they introduced more industrial robots. On the other hand, countries like the United Kingdom and Australia invested less in robots but saw faster declines in their manufacturing sectors. Moreover, the actual number of industrial robots installed by American ?rms in 2014 is 26,200. This compared to 144 million jobs (including 12 million manufacturing jobs) is a rather small number. (China had the highest number of robot installations in 2014, the 57,096 installations) Advancement in technology is generally followed by a change in the type of work people do, which generally means doing less manual work and more professional and managerial work. Robots do not necessarily eliminate unskilled labour but rather handle parts of the work which might have bad effects on the health of humans. This does not mean that robots absorb the jobs; instead humans and robots now start to work hand-inhand. We are gradually moving towards “human-computer symbiosis (J.C.R. Licklider, a psychologist and computer scientist). Human-Computer Symbiosis is the idea that technology should be designed in a way that ampli?es human intelligence instead of attempting to replace it. Robots will be deployed in activities in which they have the relatively greatest productivity, while humans will work in ?elds where they have the smallest disadvantage. Here it can be argued that there is no guarantee that the humans displaced from jobs by robots will end up with new jobs that provide good wages or working conditions. Still, past waves of mechanization and automation have been associated with higher labour productivity and wages, and have improved the quality of jobs. More than 100 years ago when Ford Motor Company introduced the assembly line, it was assumed that this would led to loss of manufacturing jobs. Ford had taken many measures to increase the sales of Model T like reducing the cost of production with standardized parts and more efficient assembly. Model T was famously available in any colour the customer wanted, so long as it was black. But the cost was still too high and production too low. This all changed with the introduction of assembly line. In 1914, Ford’s 13,000 workers built around 300,000 cars. This number was more than what nearly 300 automotive companies managed to build with a total of around 66,350 employees. This high turnover forced Ford to double the minimum wage in order to keep the assembly line running. Workers were making 5 dollars a day and working 5 days a week. Increase in production lead to lowering of prices from $850 to $260, which in turn lead to increase in sales.

Robotization, like past technological changes, can be a valuable asset, reducing the human workload and help solving problems and challenges of the world. It can (and has already) divided people into those who believe in the robotic future on one side, and the workers who will have to compete with the robots on the other. Time will tell whether the current wave of robotization and fear of a jobless future is a legitimate worry or not, but currently the society and governments should focus on how and where to use this technology so that it can be advantageous to everyone and not to just one segment of the society.

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