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Will Robots Take Away Our Jobs?

The history of humankind is one of continuous technological improvement. Ever since the first tool was crafted from stone and the first wheel was rolled, there have been innumerable technological breakthroughs to land us in this age of smartphones and the internet of things (IoT). However, real industrial and technological progress began in the mid-eighteenth century, and it is still in procession. Experts and historians divide this period of roughly 250 years into four industrial revolutions.

With the advent of each new industrial revolution, the anticipation of better lives and the fear of diminishing jobs ran parallel. History has shown us that the concerns were unfounded as the revolutions created numerous new jobs and changed every societal factor for the better. So what would the story of the current 4th industrial revolution, the age of automation, be? Will history repeat itself, or will our worst fears finally come true?

The predictors of doom often quote a McKinsey report that predicts a job loss for over 800 million people, roughly a third of the world’s workforce, across 42 countries. While the report may be another one of those fearful cries that followed the onset of each industrial revolution, it cannot be denied that the 4th industrial revolution is much different from its predecessors.

With technologies such as 3D printing, robotic process automation, blockchain, AI, robotics, and cloud-based computing, there are entirely economic, political, and social systems being transformed, at some places, slowly, and at other places at a rapid rate. The nature of this technology is unpredictable and challenging to measure in terms of growth and coverage. As more and more repetitive low-skill jobs get automated, there are job losses for sure. And the trend is significant in developed countries. However, even developing countries have begun to adapt to the new age of automation.

Depending on how sophisticated the technology becomes, even high-skill jobs are not safe from the grasp of automation. But there are, thankfully, limits. At the fundamental level, a job is nothing but a group of tasks to be performed based on many factors. As long it is technologically and economically nonviable to automate certain tasks, those jobs shall remain safe. And thankfully, a large number of such jobs exist even if the situation seems dire prima facie.

A salient example could be the job of a chef. Scientists might be able to feed a robot with recipes, but the correct movement of the skillet, skillful whisking, and an appetizing presentation is still beyond the grasp of machines and is likely to remain so for a long time to come. Hence, we can safely assert that the job of a cook or a chef remains safe.

This is just one example amongst numerous. One caveat of these job predictors is focusing on the gross job number instead of the net number of jobs. The introduction of automation shall require a higher amount of supervision and quality control. These are tasks that require humans to be at the helm. If the employment of more supervisors does not exceed the savings made from automating part of the production, there will be a reduction in the price of the product due to a cost cut. A lower price may increase demand requiring more production, which in turn shall require more supervision. Hence even though there were some jobs lost when part of the production was automated, new jobs were created. Based on the demand for the product, the final job count may be higher than before.

There are other dimensions of job creation to be noted as well. With higher inter-industry collaboration today than ever, the adaptation of automation in one industry might lessen the cost of raw material in another. This, in turn, reduces the cost of production when it comes to an end product. Such input-output linkage can lower prices and increase demand resulting in the creation of more jobs.

Reasons Behind the Naysaying

One of the prime reasons behind the negative press the 4th industrial revolution is getting is the inability to see the bigger picture. We have already discussed the gross vs. net job scenario. It is easy to take stock of the events happening right now rather than which the current trend might lead to in the future. While some experts consider the jobs being lost right now, they are unable to identify the emerging job market as a direct result of this.

Another reason could be the media’s tendency to sensationalize negative information. That and the fact that most of the jobs being lost in the preliminary stages of the 4th industrial revolution will be at the lowest skilled levels. Most of the people losing jobs belong to the low-skilled spectrum of the population. This often creates a significant wave of protest towards the current trend.

Finally, while there are possibly more jobs to be had in the future, experts at times feel safer overstating a risk rather than understating. These factors combine to create a more pessimistic view of the situation. But the light shining through the crack is visible. The most significant change this industrial revolution might bring about is a paradigm shift in terms of the nature of the jobs and the skills required to perform them.

Low-skill repetitive jobs may soon be a part of history. High-skill, specialized job training will slowly become mandatory. Governments, educational institutes, and organizations need to change and ensure better preparation for potential workers. Such preemptive steps and awareness may help see through another industrial revolution without the employment doomsday that always seems to be lurking around the corner.