Don’t fear the robot

Robots are taking our jobs… again!

Have you heard the latest? Robots are going to be taking our jobs. Very soon we will live in a world where humans are displaced by autonomous, and perhaps sentient, beings and you must therefore ask yourself – do homo-sapiens have a future? Guess what? This scare-mongering is not new, nor is it even original. In fact, machines have been taking our jobs since the great Industrial Revolution and you can blame the weavers.

Machines have been taking our jobs for centuries. Just ask the textile industry. As one of the main contributors to the industrial revolution, the textile industry could rightly be ‘annoyed’ at the hyper-productive and efficient machines that replaced most of their workforce in the late 18th century. Prior to the revolution, the textile industry consisted of men and women working from home producing high quality man-made fabrics for the fashionably astute folk in the city. Then all of a sudden the spinning wheel, water mill and steam powered looms enabled manufacturers to produce the fabrics quicker and cheaper. But were jobs actually lost?

It turns out that the answer is a resounding NO! Well kind of. As the fabric was now being produced quicker and cheaper the demand actually outstripped supply forcing a dramatic increase in factories and their associated machines. Importantly, human labour was required in greater quantities. Yep. Machines created jobs!

Sure the jobs were different and there was a requirement for re-skilling the workforce however the pool of available work actually increased. As an example the textile industry experienced an almost ten-fold increase in the participant workforce. (Admittedly most of these were working under dreadful conditions.) Should we be concerned that robots will take our jobs? Sure. Should we fear this? I think not. History has proven that we can adapt and often the introduction of an efficient new process will actually herald in positive change. So what would it look like in this case?

Already we have seen robots can perform the dreary and manual jobs such as on the assembly line. In this new world though don’t be limited to thinking just in the physical domain. Many industries are actually under threat from evolved software. For instance most on-line finance and sports reporting is compiled by software. Your medicine will soon be distributed automatically, low-invasive surgery conducted by robots and your fortunes will rest on algorithmic analytics.

What to do? Some people are calling for human welfare due to the perceived disparity created by the loss of jobs. I see this as unnecessarily pessimistic however worth keeping in the back pocket. In fact redistribution of wealth would only be a minor pain relief to the problem. More optimistically I see the need to understand the changes and adapt to the trends in an inclusive manner. This may mean recognising the opportunities presented and campaigning for an adaptive education system and labour policies.

Jobs will be taken. Change will happen. You could wallow in a depressed miasma or recognise the opportunities that are coming. If all else fails – own a robot

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