GENEVA As the recent Inventions Fair in Geneva showed, the brave new world of robotic technology continues to astound with developments only previously imagined in science fiction.
Robots can already run assembly lines, fly aircraft, control cranes, herd and feed farm animals, serve as waiters and cooks and even help with surgery. While this may be a welcome development for some, others worry about whether their jobs will be replaced in the not-so-distant future.
The subject was discussed earlier this year at a meeting in Geneva organized by the Lift Conference, which connects experts exploring the social impact of new technologies. Professor Andrew McAfee of the Center for Digital Business at MIT in the United States told participants that, according to Oxford University’s The Future of Employment report, 47% of total American employment was in the “high risk” category of becoming automated.
According to the 2013 report, the jobs most at risk will be in low-skilled categories such as transportation, logistics, administrative and service sector jobs, where most US job growth has been. The good news is that those with higher degrees and specialized skills are unlikely to find R2-D2 sitting at their desks. The key ingredient for keeping your job in the new robotic age, according to experts, is creative intelligence rather than rote intelligence, such as the careful manual dexterity of a brain surgeon or watchmaker, the social intelligence of a top-level business or diplomatic negotiator, or the emotional skills of health workers and therapists.
Roland Siegwart, a professor of robotics at Zurich’s prestigious Institute of Technology (ETH), sees robots increasingly replacing repetitive, dangerous or heavy-labour jobs in mining, construction or farming. He believes people should not be unduly concerned.
Siegwart said ETH filed a project last month for a robot-operated aircraft, which can help farmers view their fields to help identify problems such as pest infestations. “Today’s farms waste about 30% of what they produce because it remains in the fields.” He believes robotic technology will help to improve production and avoid resorting to chemicals.
“If you look at history, there have always been new technologies that give rise to worries that jobs would be killed. People thought computers would replace secretaries while in fact they have created millions of new jobs, and robots will do the same,” he added.
The way to avoid being replaced, according to the Oxford report, is to recognize what’s coming and to retrain or refocus on work that is less susceptible to automation such as jobs that require creative originality, greater academic and emotional intelligence or entrepreneurial thinking. “These changes are not going to happen overnight,” said Siegwart, “It’s a very slow process. It’s an expensive technology and in the meantime society has time to adapt and deal with new ways of working.”
According to Siegwart, the question is not so much that robots will replace humans but rather that robots will do jobs that are not good for humans. “Humans will always be needed to supervise, repair and control robots and even do their thinking for them.” He agreed, however, that this brave new world probably means that more young people should be getting a higher education. Participants at the Lift Conference also debated what the world might look like if a larger share of the population had more leisure time because of robots. Would the majority welcome this, or would they prefer to have productive work? And how many would be unable to make the transition and wind up in poverty?