Essay: Will Robots Take Your Job?

There was a time when technology was more a blessing than a curse. This began to change around 1990 when the latest round of globalization began. Up to that time, we lived in a bipolar world: more than half the world belonged to communist systems, which slowed down the global economy. Now, the power of capitalism is racing ahead, and the power of technology is racing ever faster.

Today, we can invent new technologies quite quickly but it usually takes longer for any new technology to be accepted into society. The rate at which it diffuses depends on capital, but also on our willingness to pay the social costs of adopting this technology. What has happened is that newer technologies are coming with greater social and ethical challenges. Unfortunately, the ways of resolving these challenges don’t exist. People are worrying about outsourcing and offshoring, arguing whether these are good or not. But these have become little tiny debates compared to the coming impact of robotics around the globe.

The Future Role of Robots

Consider robotics, for example. Robots have been used for the last 25 years in the manufacturing industry. The impact of robotics in manufacturing was relatively easy to absorb, because the displaced workers could be trained and given higher-level jobs, and the manufacturing output that came out of these robotic driven factories could find broader markets created by globalization.

By contrast, it is now clear we have excess manufacturing capacity. In the automobile industry, for example, we know that we have one-third excess capacity in existing factories, let alone in the new factories that are being built. The same case could be made for steel and for almost every material thing. We are, for the first time in history, living in a world of overproduction, though not yet in services.

However, in the next seven to 10 years, the Japanese government is committed to introducing the next generation of service robots intended to take over service jobs.

These service robots are not just a dream. When I went into the World Export IG in Japan last year, about a dozen robots rolled into a stadium-sized space on wheels and proceeded to perform a beautiful piece of music that had been specially written for them by a French composer. The concert lasted about two hours and was entirely played by these robots. How many musicians and conductors do we need to provide musical entertainment around the world, when you have robots that can play music perfectly?

I also saw robots doing guard duty. A robotic guard is much more effective than a human guard. It may be a bit stupid in that it cannot distinguish between a CEO and a thief, which you hope a human guard can do. But a robotic guard is awake 24 hours a day, does not fall sick, or if it does it can bring on a substitute robot. I saw one robot say to another robot, “I am feeling hungry now,” and took itself off to re-charge itself with more power. So you don’t even need human beings to assist because the robot can be designed to assess how much energy it has left. Robots now are also self-repairing in some areas.

I saw robots that were doing reception work. The robot looked like a beautiful woman, appeared to be breathing, could talk to you in four languages, could crack jokes with you, could discuss the state of the weather with you, could give you directions about where to go in the huge campus of the World Export IG. I also saw robots that were doing the equivalent of brain surgery. And I saw robots playing baseball.

What Does This Mean for Jobs?

So there is a huge choice about to face all humanity. What do we mean by a job, how we do provide basic-survival level facilities for anybody, whether in the West or East? We have moved people from agricultural to manufacturing to service jobs, but once we take people out of service jobs, what is left? We still have creative jobs, of course, but the number of creative jobs will not match the jobs that will be lost to the new robots. And there is a massive segment of our population that is not gifted at doing creative jobs. People are worrying about outsourcing and offshoring, arguing whether these are good or not. But these have become little tiny debates compared to the coming impact of robotics around the globe. This really creates very profound questions that very few people have begun to think about.

Prabhu Guptara is executive director,
Organizational Development,
Wolfsberg Executive Development Centre of UBS
in Switzerland. He has contributed this piece in an entirely personal capacity.