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The robots are coming: Why automation is not a cause for concern

Friday, 10 November 2017

The robots are coming: Why automation is not a cause for concern
Picture: Hyundai Heavy Industries

A generation ago, producing and distributing a newsletter like this one was a labour-intensive exercise. The newsletter’s content needed to be created, printed, stuffed into envelopes and posted.

Technology has eliminated most of that labour, but also, as has been the way since the invention of the wheel, created work elsewhere.

The case of newsletters and think tanks shows how. The staff hours and money the MRC would have invested in a weekly newsletter can now be spent other things - like policy development, a task unlikely to be entrusted to robots (we hope) anytime soon.

The employment that has been lost in printing and distribution has been more than regained in the companies that have sprung up to service the burgeoning of newsletters in the faster, more efficient digital age.

And more emails will reach the people who want them, thanks to the ability to reach targeted demographics. (If this one isn’t for you, incidentally, just scroll down to hit unsubscribe.)

New businesses offering digital designs for newsletters now also offer marketing strategies that integrate with social media and ecommerce. It goes without saying that none of this was apparent to the worker laid off during the demise of the printing industry.

Measuring these disruptions, especially in instances where new forms of employment are only indirectly related to those that are lost, is as complex as the technology itself.

For the most part, fear about these developments are, as with those related to climate catastrophes and viral pandemics, exaggerated.

Can a robot make a salad? That is the question asked in a long and thoughtful investigation into automation by The New Yorker. The joke answer is yes, but it will cost you $30,000. But not for long.

Automation has cut a swathe through the most repetitive jobs, especially in manufacturing. The next phase, according to The New Yorker, will be jobs requiring minor decision-making, such as cleaning supermarket aisles and other business spaces.

The New Yorker also points out that there have been three industrial revolutions - the steam engine (starting in 1800 in Britain, France and Germany), electricity (US, UK and Germany) and information technology (US, UK and Germany). China, which is embracing automation faster than the west, wants to be the centre of the fourth, the robotics revolution. The future, says the CEO of one telecommunications manufacturing company, is the “dark factory”. “You don’t need workers, you turn off the lights,” he says.

A report by McKinsey and Company this year predicted that the changes will be slower than is generally imagined. “Automation will not happen overnight,” it said in the report, Harnessing Automation for a Future that Works. “Even when the technical potential exists, we estimate it will take years for automation’s effect on current work activities to play out fully.” It said the pace of change will depend on the cost of technology, labour costs, performance benefits and social acceptance. “Our scenarios suggest that half of today’s work activities could be automated by 2055, but this could happen up to 20 years earlier or later depending on various factors.”

US researcher Daron Acemoglu agrees, saying there is no guarantee that businesses will adopt a technology merely because it exists.

Acemoglu is sceptical about the regeneration of employment in an automated world. He says the ratio of employment to head of population in the US will decrease by 0.54-1.76 percentage points between 2015 and 2025. He also concludes that there is a “very limited set of offsetting employment increases” as a result of automation.

But like the people who now work for the multinational providers of newsletters and ecommerce, we believe that human ingenuity and ambition will fill the void created by lower employment in menial jobs. A static analysis of known factors affecting this phenomenon is one thing, but human history, with its constant achievement of better living standards for more people, is another altogether. - Fred Pawle

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