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Are the robots coming for your job?

April 30, 2015
  • Report says almost half of all US jobs at high risk of automation
  • New wave of robots to blame
  • For the first time robots doing “quintessentially human” tasks
  • Optimists say society will adapt, as it always has

Shoppers in Tokyo this weekend may be a little surprised if they stumble on Aiko Chihira, the newest member of staff at Mitsukoshi Nihonbashi department store.

Aiko wears a kimono, a name badge and a rather stiff smile. Her job is to welcome customers, give directions and let people know about store promotions. Moving with the times, she is conversant in Chinese. The surprising thing is that Aiko is an android: a robot developed by Toshiba and Osaka University. 

She is one of a new wave of robots that aging Japan is developing to compensate for its shrinking workforce. With one quarter of Japanese now aged 65 or older, the government is pouring research funds into healthcare robots, rather than opening up Japan to more immigrant workers. 

Meanwhile in China, a mass-produced noodle-slicing robot called Chef Cui is hard at work in restaurants across the country. In Kinshasa, the teeming capital of Democratic Republic of Congo, solar-powered aluminium robots are busy directing traffic. And if you’re lucky enough to sail on one of Royal Caribbean International’s new cruise ships this year, you can have your drinks mixed by a robot bartender. 

But as ordinary folk around the world leave their workplaces to mark International Workers' Day, should they be concerned about the negative impact all this will have on jobs? Apparently not, say the optimists.

Their stock response goes like this: ever since the Luddite riots in England in the early 1800s, people have fretted about technology taking jobs. We have always adapted; we always will. 

Why? Because better technology reduces the price of products, which in turn raises people’s income and thus increases demand for other goods. Some jobs are lost, new ones are created and we move on. Furthermore, workers – real-life human ones – are always needed to design, service and coordinate new technology. 

A robot will not be stealing your job any time soon, according to Junji Tsuda, president of the Japanese robotics company Yaskawa Electric. “There are many robots under development that are intelligent but can’t do anything,” Tsuda recently told the Financial Times. “The biggest problem is the hands that do the work. Human hands have incredible precision.”

Yet just because the optimists have been right before, doesn’t mean they will be again. New jobs may have replaced old ones in the past, but can we be certain they will in the future?

Not according to Carl Frey and Michael Osborne, of Oxford Martin School, who offer some stark warnings in their report Technology at Work: the Future of Innovation and Employment:

  • Almost half of all US jobs (47 percent) are at “high risk” of automation over the forthcoming decades
  • A further 19 percent are considered “medium risk”
  • As many as 87 percent of workers are at risk of automation in the “Accommodation & Food Services” sector

“This time is different…” the report says. “Technology in the 21st century is enabling the automation of tasks once thought quintessentially human: cognitive tasks involving subtle and non-routine judgment.” These include: recognizing speech; navigating motor vehicles; deciphering handwriting; translating documents; even reading and reacting to human facial expressions.

And the types of jobs that robots with these skills can and will perform include: 

  • Transporting food, prescriptions and samples around hospitals
  • Not according to Carl Frey and Michael Osborne, of Oxford Martin School, who offer some stark warnings in their report Driving vehicles through underground mines
  • Navigating forklifts in crowded warehouses
  • Scanning thousands of legal documents to assist pre-trial research
  • Carrying elderly patients to the bathroom in care homes

Alarmingly, Frey and Osborne found the greatest threat to workers is in occupations that saw most US job growth over recent decades - low-paid, low-skill positions, often in the service industries. But even in relatively skilled industries, such as Finance and Insurance, “up to 54 percent of jobs could be replaced over the next decade.”

While these numbers can’t be directly transferred beyond the US, the occupations under threat will be the same in many countries and regions around the world. Predicting the future is a risky business, as Frey and Osborne freely admit. While setting out their worst case scenario they also make it clear that they remain hopeful and positive. 

“Predicting the type of new jobs that will emerge is difficult,” they conclude. “Nobody in the early 20th century would have predicted many of the jobs and industries we have today, such as software engineer or tourism.”

Nevertheless, as we marvel at our robot friends like Chef Cui in China, Robocop in Kinshasa and Aiko Chihara in Japan, it’s worth keeping Frey and Osborne’s study in mind. 

James Tulloch 

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