Studies warn that robots will kill many of our jobs. A recent report of the World Economic Forum predicts robots to displace 85 million jobs in the next five years. This trend is accelerated by COVID-19 and the need for social distancing. However, we can also benefit from the rise of robots. But that requires immediate and coordinated action.
Machines taking over human work is not a novel development. Mechanization has regularly replaced human and animal labor, created large factories, and radically affected blue-collar work. But mechanization also created new jobs, such as those related to designing, manufacturing, installing and maintaining machines. Next automation, slowly starting iIn the 1960s, substituted computers for white-collar jobs with repetitive administrative tasks. However, we also needed people to design and manufacture chips, PCs, smartphones, and networks, and to develop the software to make use of them.
Robots are the next step. In addition to current tools, they offer sensory capabilities and intelligence, and they benefit greatly from the digitization that has already taken place. As a result, firms can now promote their offerings digitally, receive digital orders, send digital invoices, and deliver digitally. This is not only possible for digitized products, such as information, music and airline tickets. It can also be done for physical goods, with automated factories and warehouses, and in the near future unmanned vehicles, the role of humans diminishes rapidly.
So, what do we still need humans for? The rise of robots creates at least three categories of work for which we need people like you and me.
First, to create, maintain and exploit the new systems. It will be humans who invent, design, implement and maintain robots, and the systems they will be part of. Robots will create enormous amounts of data (‘big data’), and it will be humans to conceive how we can benefit from all these data.
Second, the rise of robots and automated factories will reverse the offshoring trend of moving production to low-wage countries, such as in Eastern Europe, Asia and Latin America. When labor costs become a smaller part of the cost price of products, the advantages of producing abroad diminish. They may even get fully offset against the increased flexibility and faster response that comes from producing close to customer markets. COVID-19 has further unveiled the disadvantages of long, global supply chains. In short, production will return to the Western world.
Third, robots can solve labor shortages and address unmet needs, take healthcare for example. With an aging population, the demand for care is on the rise, and so are the costs, meanwhile it is getting harder to find sufficient doctors and nurses. Tools that enable patient self-monitoring or distant monitoring relieve the pressure on healthcare workers. But still, many healthcare needs are unmet. Their high workload forces caretakers to focus on the physical problems of the elderly, at the neglect of supporting them mentally. But elderly who feel lonely yearn for a chat and a gentle touch. Robots can free caretakers to meet these unmet needs.
Not surprisingly, the World Economic Forum does not only predict that robots will make 85 million jobs disappear, they are also expected to create 97 million new ones. That is not just good news; both mechanization and automation have taught us that those who lose jobs are not qualified for the new jobs. We need to reskill and upskill an enormous amount of people. That is the grand challenge of robots.
Researchers and policy makers need to identify which jobs are at risk, which adjacent and needed skills these workers have, and how to migrate them to future proof jobs. It starts with creating awareness of an inevitable change, but also of the prospects of a promising future. This needs to be accompanied by developing and funding programs that enable workers to make the necessary changes. It is a process that takes years, and has to start soon.
In summary, robots do not necessarily imply a looming future. However, workers and educational institutes, but also businesses, labor unions and governments need to undertake action. We face a window of opportunity. Let it not be the silence before the storm.