OPINION: Robot revolution a reality

In food factories, they will trim your 8 oz. sirloins and truss chickens. Assembling electric car batteries will also be in their skillset. And in the not-too-distant future, they will be serving bank customers, caring for patients in hospitals, checking in hotel guests and filling out your prescriptions.

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It’s no longer a sci-fi movie. Now it seems fiction is finally giving way to reality, which means that our future is certainly going to change. It’s also possible that you are at risk of losing your job in the near future. But will the advancements of technology, automation and artificial intelligence cause structural unemployment in our economy, or will it bring us prosperity and higher living standards?

Cheaper and better robots will replace human labour in factories at a far quicker pace over the next decade, cutting labour costs by an average of 16 percent by 2025 across the most advanced economies. The use of robots in manufacturing settings will rise to 25 percent according to the Boston Consulting Group (BCG).

In September 2014, researchers at Oxford University conducted a study of over 702 occupations and found that jobs representing about 47 percent of total U.S. employment (or over 60 million jobs) are likely to be susceptible to automation within the next decade or two.

A separate study by a think tank in Brussels found that between 50 and 60 percent of jobs in most European nations could eventually be taken over by robots or algorithms.

More recently, a survey of experts by Pew Research found that the vast majority expect that “robotics and artificial intelligence will permeate wide segments of daily life by 2025,” and about half of those surveyed expected a significantly negative impact on jobs.

As Harvard academic Justin Reich, an expert on the impact of technology, put it: “Robots and artificial intelligence will increasingly replace routine kinds of work ­— even the complex routines performed by artisans, factory workers, lawyers and accountants.”

With all the potential job losses, we need to remain optimistic. Technology has made millions of jobs obsolete throughout history. Yes, we need to be prepared and position ourselves as a community strategically, but we have been here before, this is no different.

Chainsaws have reduced the number of people necessary to harvest wood. We used to create a water well in the ground by digging to get access to underground aquifers. Now, we have automated water well systems powered by a jet pump. And the machines created for agriculture completely transformed the labour market in the 20th century — replacing many jobs.

Economic growth doesn’t simply mean more jobs, it means an increase in production and wealth creation. Would the human condition improve, if the government employed millions of people to dig wells and then hired millions more to drain them?  Is it better that we employ millions of hand weavers to make our clothing when automated looms can do the job instead?

There will always be ongoing displacement of labour through technological obsolescence, but this is not something to be feared.  We are better off today because we no longer need telephone switchboard operators to connect our calls for us. We are better off today because we no longer need people to operate an elevator for us.

With Google investing massively in robotics and artificial intelligence, Amazon preparing to deploy package-delivering drones and defence companies pouring resources into battlefield automatons, robots are here to stay — and humans can engage in more productive activities to improve the human condition.

Amir Farahi
Amir Farahi

Amir Farahi is the Co-Founder & Executive Director of the London Institute. He is an entrepreneur, columnist, public speaker, and is currently specializing in Economics and Political Science at Western University.

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