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Robot workers

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In our staff kitchen here at Gateway, we have a coin-operated vending machine. It dispenses drinks and snacks. You could argue that it is taking away someone’s job but no one seems to care. Perhaps that’s because it’s viewed as a machine and not a robot. That’s not to suggest that every robot is seen as a threat.

A futuristic cruise ship which recently made Sydney its home port boasts a bionic bartender. Patrons customize their orders on a tablet screen and collect their cocktail at the bar in just thirty seconds. The twin robotic arms stir, shake and pour cocktails. This technology is a hit with passengers, even though the robot bartender is putting human bartenders out of work.

In Japan, an increasing number of firms are introducing robots as a solution to the country’s rapidly shrinking workforce. They are appearing everywhere - from banks to factories - and are warmly embraced by colleagues and citizens. Japan is using its technological prowess to pioneer solutions for an aging population and now boasts the world’s first hotel staffed by robots.

Beyond cruise ships and outside of Japan, there is considerable anxiety about robots replacing human workers. But is this fear rational? There is no doubt that some jobs will be automated but many others will continue to need a human touch. However, if you do a Google search on Artificial Intelligence, it will return multiple sites predicting a robot takeover of the workforce (and the planet!).

Apparently, very few workers will escape unscathed in the robot revolution. Millions of human jobs are allegedly destined for the scrap heap to be replaced by an army of robots that never strike or get sick. One US expert, Professor Moshe Vardi of Rice University, believes that the rise of robots could lead to unemployment rates greater than 50 per cent

The robot revolution is not confined to manufacturing. Robots are leaving the factory floor and marching into our offices. Professional workers are also supposedly under threat. Professor Lynda Gratton of London Business School and futurologist David A. Smith, boldly predict that robotics may make many lawyers, doctors and accountants redundant in 20 years.

Automation is also washing over into the armed services. Michael Horowitz, a University of Pennsylvania professor, is an expert on weaponized robots. He believes that over time the US military will “remove soldiers from non-combat deployments where they might face risk from adversaries on fluid battlefields, such as in transportation”.

In a 2015 report, Bank of America predicted that robots and other forms of artificial intelligence will take over 45 per cent of all jobs in manufacturing by 2025. More recently, accountancy firm Deloitte predicted that a quarter of all jobs in the service sector are at high risk of automation within the next two decades. 

Try as I might, I cannot embrace the doomsday predictions of mass redundancies due to humanoid robots. Respectfully, I think we have all watched too many sci-fi movies. I don’t buy the hysterical, robo-apocalypse scenario. Robots are not going to make us all technologically unemployed nor are they going to shatter the global economic order.

Regular readers of this blog know that I am not afraid to swim against the tide of popular opinion. When it comes to the unmitigated praise surrounding new technology, I am a true Doubting Thomas. In previous posts, I have taken counter positions to the overhyped predictions regarding the take-up of Bitcoin, Google Glass and Apple Watch (to name but a few) and have been proven correct in each case. 

Today, I am again sticking my neck out and going on the public record in saying that “expert” forecasts of robots putting over a billion people out of work are greatly exaggerated. As always, only time will tell if I am right. But I draw comfort from a 2016 report prepared by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

You have to look hard to find this report as it has not captured the headlines. Perhaps this should not come as a surprise as its conclusions are not alarming. According to the OECD, only 9 per cent of jobs are at high risk of being replaced by machines by 2020. The Report notes that “the risk of job loss because of automation is less substantial than sometimes claimed”. 

The OECD came to this conclusion due to the methodology it used. Whereas other reports look at broad occupations and whole classes of activities, the OECD analysed “…the task content of individual jobs instead of the average task content of all jobs in each occupation”. In other words, it stripped jobs down into individual tasks. 

In doing this, the OECD was able to identify which tasks are routine and repetitive and therefore ripe for automation and which tasks - like creativity, imagination and social interaction - cannot be replicated by machines. This process led the OECD to conclude that “automation and digitalization are unlikely to destroy large numbers of jobs”. 

It is clear that automation will displace some jobs but, according to the McKinsey Global Institute, not as many and not as fast as some fear. My sense is that the greatest impact of robots will be to transform jobs rather than replace human work. Certainly, the human workforce will not become obsolete. Indeed, automation will spur the growth of new jobs that don’t currently exist.

My bet is that artificial intelligence/automation will create more than it destroys. Here’s hoping!


Paul J. Thomas, CEO


avatar Andreew Stabback
Again Paul I'm in fierce agreement with your analysis however this will put an even larger empahsis on our education system to become a more creative environment wrapped in STEM capabilities!

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CEO Paul Thomas