Meet your new robot co-worker

Joe Svetlik

Friday 19 May 2017

Worried about a robot stealing your job? You needn’t be. A new report says that by 2055, only 5 per cent of jobs will be done by machines. Instead of being our rivals, robots will work alongside us, and will even take care of the boring stuff like admin.

There has been a lot of talk lately about robots stealing our jobs. At first, it was feared that advancements in robotics would mean more blue-collar jobs would be automated. And, more recently, there has been talk of white-collar jobs also coming under threat from the unstoppable march of the machines. But a new report casts doubt on that.

According to a McKinsey Global Institute released in January 2017, machines will indeed do some jobs and tasks in the workplace. But it won’t be a case of the robots taking over. Instead, robots and humans will work hand in hand.

Transforming the workplace

Firstly, there’s no denying that innovations like machine learning will have a transformative effect on the world of work. McKinsey estimates that, between 2015 and 2065, automation will lead to an increase in productivity of between 0.8 and 1.4 per cent. That’s more than the increase in productivity from the steam engine, early robotics and IT.

This productivity boost won’t come from robots replacing humans in jobs, though in a small minority of cases that will happen. Rather, it will be from automating parts of jobs. And the really good news? It’s the boring elements of jobs that best lend themselves to being automated – think transcription, filing and the like.

According to the report, by 2055, half of all workplace jobs will be handled by machines. But the robots will only do 5 per cent of complete jobs – meaning the roles that require an employee. Hence the rise of the robots is unlikely to result in mass unemployment.

Creating new types of work

Instead, the change will be more akin to the long-term technology-enabled shifts away from agriculture in developed countries’ workforces during the 20th century. In other words, it will result in the creation of new types of work. Humans will still be an integral part of the workforce. Indeed, when the simple but mundane tasks can be automated, human ingenuity and creativity will play a bigger part in business decisions. But we’ll have to learn to work alongside robots.

This might not be as big a change as it sounds. Computers and machines are already an integral part of our lives and will continue to be with the advances in machine learning. Experts predict driverless cars will be road legal by 2020, for example. It’s just one example of how a necessary process – commuting – can be automated, freeing up the commuter to start work early, or indulge in creative pursuits.

The EU even wants to give robots ‘personhood’ status. This would endow public authorities with technical, ethical and regulatory expertise, and regulate who would be responsible for the social, environmental and human health impacts of robotics. It would be analogous to corporate personhood, which lets firms take part in legal cases both as the plaintiff and the respondent. And it takes us another step closer to recognising robots as a valuable part of the workforce.

It’s obvious that, as robots become more advanced, they have even more capacity to transform our lives. But if they’re to do so for the better, we’ll have to work alongside them. Instead of fearing the rise of the robots, we should embrace it as just another tool in our arsenal to making the world of work more creative and more productive. Our livelihoods depend on it.

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