Dozens of dystopian visions depict all-out war with intelligent robots, and successful movies like I, Robot and Terminator loom large in the popular imagination. But the real threat from robots is actually more prosaic than this. They have already begun to replace people in the workplace and there is a widespread fear that this will lead to mass unemployment. But how real is this threat, and is there a different, more helpful way to see robots and the automation of the workplace?
Robots employ us
The tech industry employs more than 15 million people worldwide, according to the OECD, so we couldn’t do without it. In the US, 3.9 million people are employed in computer and IT occupations and this is expected to grow by 12% to 4.4 million in 20241.
The median annual wage for computer and IT occupations was $81,430 in May 2015 compared with the median for other occupations of just $36,2002.
US 2015 median earnings: IT vs other occupations ($k pa)
Filling the labour gap
As minimum wages and benefits rise across the world, fewer people want to work in factories and on production lines meaning there is a shortage of labour. The situation is aggravated by an ageing population and tougher policies on immigration. Robots can help alleviate this problem.
Labour surplus or shortage: 2020-2030 %
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Source: Boston consulting group3
In addition, robots will provide productivity gains allowing factories to remain open, and so robots and automatons actually save jobs. They provide a competitive edge to keep factories from closing.
“Technologies in areas like AI and robotics will both create totally new jobs in the digital technology area and, through productivity gains, generate additional wealth and spending that will support additional jobs of existing kinds, primarily in services sectors that are less easy to automate.”
PricewaterhouseCoopers, ‘UK economic outlook’
There will be job losses from mid-range jobs, however. McKinsey & Company estimates that with today’s technology fewer than 5% of all occupations globally could be completely “automatable”, that said, 60% of occupations have around 30% automatable content and this is likely to increase as technology continues to develop.
Some have suggested putting a tax on robots to slow technological change, but this could put countries at a disadvantage. Others have said the only way to manage the issue is to upskill the workforce – China aims to do this with its Made in China plan and Germany with its Industrie 4.0. The UK’s ‘digital strategy’ launched in March this year promised to provide a fund boost of £17.3m to support the development of new Robotics and Artificial Intelligence (RAI) technologies in universities across the UK.
These countries, and many more, are actively investing in and developing robotics in a bid to make their workforces better prepared for the challenge of a digital age.