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The Future of Jobs (in a World of Robots)

Travis Briggs, CEO US


Ask my 11-year-old daughter Helena what I do for a living, and her answer is simple: “My Dad makes robots.” 

Despite valiant efforts to correct my daughter, I’ve clearly failed. For better or worse, making robots is not my line of work. Of course, telling her that I’m the CEO of ROBO Global US means nothing to her. And in truth, it probably explains very little of my day-to-day activities to anyone who doesn’t work with me side-by-side. Why? Because the tasks that I spend the bulk of my time doing aren’t particularly tangible. Teambuilding. Assessing potential investments. Juggling resources. Building relationships. Picking the brains of industry experts who not only understand what robotics, automation, and artificial intelligence (“RAAI”) is capable of today, but what it will look like tomorrow. My job is fascinating to me, but explaining what I do, much less how to do it, is anything but simple.

Perhaps this is precisely why I struggle a bit every time I read a headline warning that robots are going to “steal all of our jobs.” There are certainly aspects of my job that I’d love to hand over to a robot, but even delegating to another human has proved challenging.  While I know there are other jobs more susceptible to automation, I still question the notion of RAAI as a threat rather than an incredible opportunity.

Historically, technological advancements have been “stealing” jobs ever since cavemen constructed the first tool. Suddenly a difficult task became easy, and progress was made. The momentum of change—and the fear of what’s to come—hasn’t slowed down since.

Related: Not So Modern Times: The Backwards Thinking of Charlie Chaplin and Jeremy Corbyn

When automation was first introduced into manufacturing via automated textile equipment, the Luddites emerged spreading fear of mass unemployment.  Nearly 100 years later, Henry Ford’s assembly line posed another threat to the status quo. Instead, the modern supply chain was born. New industries sprang up to support auto manufacturing, and thousands of new jobs were created. Oil and steel suddenly became major industries, which led to major advancements in petroleum refining, steel making, paint manufacturing, and more. But despite the emergence of new industries and new professions, the fear remained that jobs would be lost.

Of course, today we live in a much different world. Automation is no longer limited to assembly lines and automated factory tools. Today, robots are able to sense, process, and act—skills that make them capable of doing an increasing number of tasks, including many of the “dangerous, dirty, and demeaning” jobs that, in the past, required the help of unskilled laborers. While the fear still exists, the impact of robotics and automation on jobs thus far has been a positive one.

Japan is a perfect example. The country’s aging workforce has resulted in a troubling statistic: the ratio of jobs to unemployed workers is now 2:1. There are simply not enough workers to fill the jobs that are required to produce enough goods to meet their needs. RAAI is the only real solution to this growing labor shortage. Robots are needed, and they’re needed now.

Because Japan’s labor shortage lies largely in agriculture, RAAI is an ideal solution (see Investor spotlight: Agricultural robots are set to solve the global food crisis). But other countries are experiencing significant shortages of skilled labor for jobs that are uniquely human. Canada is desperately seeking thousands of IT professionals to meet its immediate information communication technology needs. Germany’s Cologne Institute of Economic Research has predicted a shortfall of nearly one million skilled laborers within the next four years, and Belgium needs specialists in IT and engineering.[1] And a robot cannot fulfill one of these jobs, no matter how advanced it may be.

The media loves headlines that conjure up images of sci-fi intrigue and danger. The reality isn’t nearly as exciting. Our biggest challenge in the near future is not a labor shortage caused by an army of robots, but rather providing the education required to fill the growing demand for skilled professionals. Times are changing yet again, but just as before, that change brings immense opportunity for growth and progress.

Will robots take jobs? Yes. Some. Already, robots are digging, planting, assembling, and lifting. They’re cleaning factory floors, sorting recycled materials, and completing many other basic tasks. For skilled jobs, advanced robots are supporting workers, not replacing them. Robotic surgical systems improve safety and shorten recovery time, while artificial intelligence (AI) robots assist physicians in analyzing patient’s records. Collaborative robots (or ‘co-bots’) work safely and efficiently next to humans on manufacturing lines. Robots can even provide companionship to the elderly. But robots will never be uniquely human. And while they may shift how we work, they will never replace our human workforce.

In his 1922 article “Fear of Change,” Henry Ford wrote, “As long as there is life, there is Change.[2] Inventors and investors alike already understand the far-reaching growth potential for robotics, automation, and AI. Rather than throwing up barriers to change, it’s time to let go of the age-old fear of progress and embrace the opportunity ahead of us. By doing so, we can charge even faster into a more productive, collaborative, and innovative future.

[1] “4 Countries With Labor Shortages and Very Different Opportunities,” The Network, October 2016.

[2] “Fear of Change,” an excerpt from Ford’s longer work entitled Ford Ideals, 1922.

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