Ever since I began writing on the robotics industry three years ago, a question has been unsettling my mental circuits: Will robots take away my job?
It’s a question also being asked by others – ordinary workers, as well as experts and policymakers – as technological advances stoke insecurity and implant fear in fleshy minds.
The answer to the question is a simple yes. But take a deep breath – let me assure you, we won’t be jobless.
There’s no doubt robots are getting increasingly powerful – and adaptable. Thanks to advances in machine learning and other cutting-edge tech, they can now assemble smartphones, track store inventory, clean the floor, make a cocktail and even write news stories and financial analyses.
That’s not all. There are robot firefighters and robot surgeons. They have branched out into the care industry, guiding the blind and assisting the elderly. Some even sing lullabies and teach languages to kids.
Human workforce shrinking
The impact we feel from robots and automation will be determined by a race between two social trends: Will our societies age first, or will our unemployment hit the ceiling?
In China, the rapidly ageing population is driving automation in manufacturing. People aged 60 or older exceeded 240 million in 2017, accounting for 17.3 per cent of China’s population. That figure is projected to hit 400 million (25 per cent) in 2033, official data show.
At the same time, China’s shrinking demographic dividend and soaring labour costs are ringing alarm bells. Last year, the country’s pool of workers aged 16 to 59 declined for the sixth consecutive year. In Shanghai, a hotbed of manufacturing, monthly salaries have increased 250 per cent in the last decade alone.
So, even as individuals worry if robots will steal their jobs, companies have big concerns over whether enough skilled talent will be available for their labour-intensive factories.
A greying China poses urgent challenges. Young professionals are tending to marry late, if at all. Having babies does not seem to be among their top priorities.
The birth rate is slowing. Western-style consumption is increasing. The end to rising labour costs is nowhere in sight.
The time seems ripe for the rise of robots.
Yet automation has a downside that is overlooked. Robots are neither conscious (not yet) nor resourceful in the human sense. As mere machines, they still have to be programmed, operated and controlled by humans.
Hot promises, cold soup
A restaurant in Beijing recently hyad to “fire” three waiter robots because their frequent mistakes caused havoc and they could not respond to customers’ demands in time. The limits of automation have been highlighted in other reports. I now take claims of robots’ stupendous capabilities with a pinch of salt.
In some cases, they can actually help save jobs. For example, smart machines used in warehouses can only work alongside human operators.
The robot assistants follow them and carry heavy loads around, saving bad backs, sore knees, protecting health and helping prolong careers.
Additionally, facilities that use robots tend to be more efficient with higher productivity and are thereby less likely to shut.
A worker made redundant by the introduction of a robot in, say, a warehouse, often received training in how to fix and operate the metal usurper. Without the robot, the warehouse could face closure and layoffs. A visit to a fully automated Volvo auto plant earlier this year demonstrated this win-win scenario.
All around me, gigantic robotic arms and smart machines hummed, as a string of human workers oversaw them. A 40-year-old worker told me he used to assemble auto parts, before taking three months off to master the basics of robot control.
He has since developed a habit of frequent learning, to keep up with the rapidly evolving technology of robotic arms.
Smart machines free workers from repetitive tasks that can be both stressful and monotonous. No longer “cogs” in the production line, they can learn the skills to perform zero-stress, brain-sharpening tasks that increase their level of job satisfaction.
In my own case, if my robot colleague could use an algorithm to practise “churnalism” – churning out routine, dry, hard news based on press releases and official statements – I’d be free to focus more on producing real journalism: in-depth interviews, research-based analyses, far-reaching features about trends and developments, and insightful columns.
By the way, hopefully you can see by now that this column was indeed written by a human being.