Napoleon Bonaparte famously called Britain “a nation of shopkeepers”. This was a rather astute analysis at the time and it would have held true until quite recently. Some 200 years on from this pithy observation, perhaps the French emperor would have been at a loss for words in the modern era of e-commerce and self-checkouts. In fact, there isn’t a sector in the UK that hasn’t been affected – and perhaps improved – by mechanisation.
At the Hannover Messe robotics fair in Germany in April, the UK company Mobey Robotics launched the world’s first robot chef, capable of mimicking the kitchen skills of a human chef and recreating them with extraordinary consistency without breaks, holidays or incentives. There are now even algorithms allowing computers to carry out creative tasks such as writing basic music, creating art and, yes, even writing new articles. Is any profession safe?
On the face of it, it might appear as if we’re all in trouble. Last September, researchers at Oxford University released a paper on the vulnerability of jobs in light of modern automation. Their report, The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerisation?, is a worrying read. They estimated that about 47% of total US employment is at risk from technologies now operational in laboratories and in the field. But let’s not take hammers to machines in defence of our jobs just yet.
According to Jonathan Wilkins, marketing manager of European Automation, which supplies, repairs and services exchange parts for the manufacturing industry, there are several reasons why robots won’t overthrow humanity. “Robots are designed to make human life easier, not to make humans obsolete,” he says. “There will always be a need for humans to oversee machines; they need constant maintenance and repair and, in fact, they’re in more danger of becoming obsolete than humans.” Also, humans are sociable creatures and will always crave company, which robots can’t give us… yet.
Even the word ‘robot’ comes from the Czech word robotnik; a term used to refer to slaves. So robots have only ever been made to serve us.
The business case for machines has been proven time and time again. Robots mean increased efficiency and quality and a decrease in error and waste. “Essentially this means cheaper products,” says Wilkins. “The benefits for workers are clear also: the less desirable, monotonous jobs would disappear, allowing us to focus on the jobs we really want and that really challenge us.” Increased robotics could even increase human happiness, he adds.
French Caldwell, chief evangelist at MetricStream, a company that simplifies governance, risk and compliance for modern and digital enterprises via cloud apps, is another optimist when it comes to robots.
“A lot of jobs seem under threat but more jobs will be created than there are jobs displaced, even if that’s difficult to see when you’re in the middle of a technological revolution,” he explains. “It’s tough on workers but the fact is we will need a lot more service technicians.”
The fact is, artificial intelligence, robotics and other advanced technologies have a very dramatic and rapid impact on people who have put significant assets into their business, career or education and that causes that a huge public policy and political backlash, Caldwell explains. But it doesn’t mean there won’t be more jobs at the end. When we look back ten years from now, we will probably see there was tremendous displacement but at the same time we’ll notice there was a huge number of jobs that emerged as a result.
So why is there such a backlash against the rise of the machines? A lot of it comes down to uncertainty but technology adoption is actually much faster now than it’s ever been. “There’s more hope than with earlier generations, which were much less well equipped,” says Caldwell. “The producers of these machines take a lot of the social software that we are familiar with on our smartphones or tablets and adopt it to newer technology so we’re already familiar with the interfaces.”
Another factor is the speed of uptake, although this is hampered by the cost of machines, which is still high. While we might be a some way off robots being affordable to the average business – and there’s no shortage of examples where man power is actually cheaper than machine power – this will change over time as well.
Shaun Simmons, managing director of Cordant Technical and Engineering, part of Cordant Recruitment, the second-largest privately owned recruitment company in the UK, has seen firsthand how machines have affected recruitment over the last twenty years, and it’s by no means a negative picture; he suspects it will remain that way.
“We’ve not necessarily seen a dip in the requirements of people because the more robots there are, the more roles there are in terms of designing them and operating them,” he says. “It’s just a matter of there being new skill sets; while previously a man or woman would build a car with the aid of tools to put all the parts together, there’s now a robot that does it.” Humans are still required for conducting research and development, upgrading the robots and all the innovation behind it. “A robot cannot think of how to solve a problem, so it’s not necessarily that you see a reduction in the number of staff required, you just need different types of people.”
So there you have it. Let’s drop this neo-luddite fear-mongering and the calls to halt progress and learn to love our new robot overlords.