Mechanisation of production process started long back in 18th century England with industrial revolution. The objective was to increase productivity; maximize profitability. Industrial automation and robotics came in natural progression of that process and none of these is a recent incident.
Nevertheless, questions are being asked nowadays like; what is the future of our existing workforce; will robot workers replace men and women in near future; what will happen if too many people become jobless; which types of jobs are more at risk of becoming obsolete; or, which are the least risky.
Policy makers, politicians, business owners, social scientists, activists and technocrats – all of them are worried. In developed countries, like, USA, situation is already nightmarish for too many working class people. According to some estimation, 38% of American workforce will lose jobs to industrial automations and robotics by 2030s. It makes sense to dig a little deeper and understand the situation.
Are robots going to replace human workers?
According to a 2016 statement of Edward Rensi, former CEO of McDonald’s, it is economical to buy a $35,000 robotic arm than hiring someone at $15 an hour for packing French fries. This is not just the reality of American fast food industry, which is experiencing steady cut down in workforce due to automation and robotics. Industries like, retail, storage, wholesale, transportation and manufacturing, are also seeing rapid growth in use of industrial robotics since 1990s. A recent study in London School of Economics showed that since early 1990s USA is experiencing jobless recoveries. What does that mean? It means job generation is not happening as rapidly as the rate of recovery of the US economy from recessionary phases. GDP is increasing but employment numbers are not increasing. There might be different reasons; but industrial automation and usage of robotics is surely one of them. The study has identified 19 American industries experiencing similar job cuts due to introduction of robotics.
A McKinsey Global Institute report estimates that nearly 20% of global workforce will be affected by robotics and artificial intelligence by 2030; that is the lives of nearly 800 million workers and their families. Intensity of impact might vary from developed to developing countries and across types of works.
Job prospects for robots
It is obvious that all manual repetitive works can be mechanized and vulnerable to competitions from robot applicants. Rapidly growing machine learning technologies have already made it a lot easier to develop autonomous robotic applications compared to a decade back. A few of the jobs, which are going to be obsolete sooner than we can imagine, are
In developed countries, all these works will be taken care of by robots and artificially intelligent (AI) agents. It will no longer be cost efficient to employ human in these profiles. Due to comparatively lower wages, workers in developing countries would be better off as investments in robotics might not be very cost effective in those regions for the time being; however, such cost benefit will not be there for very long time.
Jobs with least chance of being automated
All works which require human emotion and empathy cannot be handed over to robots, at least, in foreseeable future. Robots and artificially intelligent agents can be highly efficient in repetitive works; but they are not capable of replicating human emotions. We can accept artificially intelligent robots handling our financial queries but can hardly accept nursing care from robotic agents or robotic hairstylists, for that matter; even if technologists manage to build one.
Also, professions demanding creativity and critical thinking skills are safe from the clutch of automation. Writers, music director, film director, diplomats, negotiators and many others belong to that category. There will be another category of works which will survive the automation onslaught; these are low wage specialized activities, like plumbing, gardening, personal care etc.
What will happen to people losing their jobs to robotics?
There is no doubt that technology has immensely improved our living standard in last couple of hundred years. And it will keep on doing so in the future. So, there is no point in denying or stopping natural progression of technology. However, from human and social point of view it is equally important to rehabilitate people who will be losing their livelihood to robotic counterparts. Industrial revolution made various craftsmen jobless but the same process also created different types of new opportunities. In fact that is the reason world population has increased rapidly since the days of industrial revolution. Average wage rate increased along with living standards.
Similarly, AI and robotics will also bring in new types of work opportunities, which might be beyond our imagination at this moment. However, to accept those new opportunities people will definitely require reskilling and upskilling. With all certainty need for higher educated workforce will increase; and there lies the major challenge.
Robotics, joblessness and policy bottleneck
Both the developed and the developing countries in near future will require reskilling and upskilling of workforce in massive scale to save a large segment of workforce from becoming unemployable. In USA and many other developed countries, situation of adult education is far from satisfactory. In emerging economies the scenario is even more severe.
It is true that upskilling of already higher educated workers will not pose much problem; but for unskilled, semi-skilled and poorly skilled people, who are significant in number, this is becoming a humongous task. There are motivation issues, basic cognition issues as well as infrastructural bottlenecks. Targeted emphasis is required from, as low as, primary education level. For that, we need rapid policy interventions; serious overhauling of technical skill development ecosystem and mass awareness regarding future trends in job markets.
Ray of hope
Germany has nearly 4 times robots on factory floors compared to US; estimated roughly 8 robots for every thousand German workers. In last 3 decades, over 2,70,000 job roles have been discontinued due to application of robotics. Despite these, concern of robotics related job loss is not alarming in Germany. In fact, hardly any job loss is attributed to industrial automation in the Country. There are multiple reasons behind; and the significant one is redistribution of medium skilled workers, who lost their jobs to robots, to other roles through re-training. Youth entering job markets are also being sensitized to move away from manufacturing, which is more prone to automation and robotics. More people are entering service sectors, least affected by automation.
In US too, many companies, which have embraced automation, are also reporting zero job cut. Evian, Accenture are some of the big names; there are also small start-ups like, Boxed, a bulk grocery e-comm. They are spending a part of the savings generated though automation on retraining existing employees and positioning them in new job roles. Obama administration also favored re-training, job search assistance and other labour market reforms so that people, losing jobs to robotics, can be reemployed in other roles.
Back home in India, situation is not yet very severe; partly due to comparatively smaller size of the manufacturing industry. We do have time to reorganize our skill development initiatives so that people can be safe-guarded from automation related job losses. India’s skill development programs do encourage participation in service sectors, which is a significant employer in the Country. However, skill development is India is plagued by a typical problem of achieving quantity over quality. It requires immediate attention.
So, it won’t be an overstatement to say that impact of robots on human workforce will be more due to policy bottlenecks, if any, and less because of technological advancements.