Are the robots taking our jobs?

“Machines have less problems. I'd like to be a machine, wouldn't you?” Andy Warhol’s oft-quoted words were spoken in 1963, but he was neither the first nor the last celebrity to take an interest in the wonders of technology. Robots have been portrayed as anything from pleasant companions to job-stealing killing machines.

The oldest known design of a robot that survives is of a knight, sketched by Leonardo da Vinci. It could sit down and lift its visor. The industrial revolution, and the advent of machines in factories during the 1800s, lifted people out of poverty and allowed them to avoid heavy and dangerous work, and to devote themselves to more advanced tasks. Robotisation enabled mass production, giving everyone access to goods and services previously only available to the wealthy.

These days, Apple has onshored parts of its production to the US, where it is handled by industrial robots instead of low-wage labour. Companies as diverse as Google and Volvo are developing self-driving cars, and in China Foxconn has an army of robots in its first fully automated factory. Robots have become commonplace in the world of services. At the airport we check in and drop our luggage using robots, and on the stock markets lightning-fast algorithms have replaced the most polished brokers.

Robots and labour

But what does this mean for workers? Cybercom took time to talk with economist and robotics researcher Georg Graetz.

“Industrial robots have long been important for improving efficiency, but it was not until the 1990s that they became really cheap, and therefore a possible option for more sectors and industries,” explains Georg Graetz.

In their study “Robots at Work”, Graetz and his colleague Guy Michaels investigated how the use of robots in 17 countries has impacted productivity gains, employment growth and other variables. They found that productivity increased more where robot use was more widespread. Robots account for more than one-sixth of the total productivity growth of 2 % per year in the countries included in the study.

“We have not looked at ICT as a whole, but only where robots are involved. For me the results are interesting because robots do not yet make up a particularly large component of capital. This shows the potential in the future.

Total hours worked unchanged

They also found that the increased use of machines had not led to a reduction in employment, and the effect on the total number of hours was zero.

“But when we broke it down into different groups, we saw that hours worked for people with higher
education increased, while the number of hours for the low-skilled had fallen.”

From this they concluded that robots are taking certain jobs, mainly low-skilled, but that new jobs are added.

“The main negative impact of the advance of robots – and technology in general – has been felt in occupations where you can easily write a program for the tasks. Repetitive, mechanical tasks that follow simple rules, such as industrial jobs, accounting and customer service are examples of occ­upations that have decreased. Meanwhile, more skilled occupations like system developer, programmer and robot operator have been added.”

The increased use of robots has improved productivity, which has led to lower prices for manufactured goods. This in turn leads to increased demand and more employees to meet customers' growing desire to buy these cheaper goods. The advent of robots has also resulted in even safer and better working environments and greater precision in the work.

Georg believes jobs that require
creativity, analytical skills or a degree
of judgement will not be outsourced to robots for a while. He also shows there are many types of jobs that do not require higher education, but that have still not been replaced by technology.

“Waiters and cleaners are roles that do not require much education but that are still difficult to automate, because they require skills and human and social interaction that are not easy to program.”

Important to keep up with developments

Georg Graetz says companies must keep up with new technology and evaluate how it may be relevant to their business, whether this is about cost savings or staying ahead of competitors. It is important to not be the last to adopt new, efficient technology.

“But decisions to adopt new technologies and reorganise a business are strategic, business-critical decisions that need to be thought through carefully.”

One benefit of new technology is that it is easier to put ideas into practice and start a business today. This does not require much capital and it is easy to reach out to customers through the internet. But for more people to take advantage of the opportunities we need a new vision of future educational strategies,” says Georg Graetz.

“Those responsible must think about how education should be adapted to better prepare people for new technologies. Courses on how to start a business and develop new services, I believe, must have a greater role from the very start of schooling. We need to intensify the focus on skills that are less likely to be replaced by robots, such as analytical abilities, creativity and social interaction, and also the ability to combine these skills.

Skilled jobs in research or the humanities are not as easy to reduce to computerised processes.

So even though Andy Warhol wanted to be a machine, it is not likely that we will see actors, designers, engineers, scientists or artists as robots in the near future.

Georg Graetz is an assistant professor at the Department of Economics, Uppsala University.

In addition to “Robots at Work”, he has published a number of papers such as “Rise of the Machines: The Effects of Labor-Saving Innovations on Jobs and Wages” (2015), and “A Question of Degree: The Effects of Degree Class on Labor Market Outcomes” (2015), both together with Andy Feng.