What does the robot revolution and ever-increasing automation mean for human workers?

Robots are great, right? They can entertain us, do cool stuff, make our lives easier. What’s not to like? Well, according to many predictions, technological progress and the rise of robots threaten hundreds of millions of jobs around the globe. So, are we inventing ourselves into oblivion? Or does the rise of the robot just mean more time for us humans to kick back and relax?

History

For all you fact-fans, the word ‘robot’ was originally applied to the mechanical men and women in the play R. U. R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), written by Carel Capek way back in 1920. Interestingly, the root in the Czech word is ‘rob’, also found in Russian as ‘rab’, meaning ‘slave’ and rabota ‘work’… which is ironic given that they now threaten to replace so many of us in the workplace.

Elektro the robot revealed at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York

Elektro weighed 265 pounds and smoked cigarettes!

In 1928, that one of the world’s first humanoid robots was exhibited at the annual exhibition of the Model Engineers Society in London. Invented by W. H. Richards, the robot went by the name of Eric (because, why not?).

Eric must have caused a stir, but I’m sure it was nothing compared to what the visitors to the 1939 World’s Fair in New York experienced on first seeing the mighty ‘Elektro’. Standing seven feet tall (2.1 m) and weighing 265 pounds (120.2 kg), Elektro could walk by voice command, speak around 700 words (using a 78-rpm record player), blow up balloons and even smoke cigarettes!

Fast forward to the year 2000 and Honda introduced the world to ASIMO (an acronym for Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility). Looking like a pint-sized astronaut from the future, ASIMO was the world’s first bipedal humanoid robot.

ASIMO by Honda was the world’s first bipedal humanoid robot

… whereas ASIMO doesn’t even vape

Back To The Future

Alright, enough of the history lesson. What about the here and now? Well, robots have come a long way since the first imaginings of science fiction writers and pioneering scientists. From assembling cars, to vacuuming your home, robots have entered nearly every facet of our lives – and we’re just getting started…

75% of all jobs gone by 2067

According to research by Forrester, one of the most influential research and advisory firms in the world, automation alone will displace 22.7 million jobs in America alone by 2025. This equates to a job loss of 16% between 2015 and 2025. To put this into context, at its highest point during the Great Depression, unemployment reached 25%.

Some go even further. Jeff Rone, a veteran of 32 years working in 22 silicon valley companies, says “thinking machines will replace most if not all human workers.” A process that’s been happening for decades, it’s now accelerating at an unprecedented rate and, says Rone, will be complete within 100-200 years. “No existing or future job without exception is safe simply because computers are general purpose thinking machine smarter, less error prone and more creative than humans in the long run. Perhaps 75% of the jobs will be gone in 50 years.”

And it’s not just those in the tech bubble predicting troubling times ahead. The Bank of England has warned that up to 15 million jobs in Britain are at risk of being lost. The bank’s chief economist, Andy Haldane, said automation posed a risk to almost half those employed in the UK and that a “third machine age” will hollow out the labour market, widening the gap between rich and poor. Yay!

Humans Need Not Apply

In what is quite possibly the most depressing 15 minutes of video you will ever watch, the film Humans Need Not Apply, lays it out in a way that leaves little doubt of the impact our robot creations will have on the global workforce.

Yes, we’ve been through economic revolutions before, but, the film argues, the robot revolution is different. Technology gets better cheaper and faster at a rate that biology can’t match.

I really recommend checking the film out. The analogy made between horses and humans (it makes sense, I promise!) definitely makes you wonder about what the near-future will bring.

So Are We All Doomed Then?

Don’t crunch down on that cyanide pill just yet! There is hope… The same piece of research from Forrester with the scary stats about job-losses, also presents a whole lot of positives about where the robot revolution will take us. Yes there will be real impact on the labour market, but this will work both ways.

13.6 million Jobs Created

Forrester say automation will create around 13.6 million new jobs in the next decade and that automation will create jobs equivalent to 9% of the workforce by 2025. That means for every 10 jobs affected by automation, one new job will be created in sectors such as software, engineering, design, maintenance, support, or training.

Human And Robot Side By Side

So yes, there will be an inevitable and sizable shake-up in the labour market. However, job transformation is the more likely future, rather than massive job loss. J.P. Gownder, vice-president and principal analyst at Forrester Research, says: “While these technologies are both real and important – and some jobs will disappear because of them – the future of jobs overall isn’t nearly as gloomy as many believe.

Humans and robots will work side by side

“In reality, automation will spur the growth of many new jobs — including some entirely new job categories. But the largest effect will be job transformation: Humans will find themselves working side by side with robots.”

Let’s just hope our new robot co-workers know to bring cake in on their birthday!