I first started talking about robo-lleagues – an amalgam of robots and colleagues – in 2010. Their capabilities continue to increase as do the predictions of job losses as robots arrive at new destinations. But, skills shortages and productivity levels also continue to be a major concern in many economies and are likely to remain so. Robo-lleagues will undoubtedly bring disruption, but they could also be part of the solution to high and low level skills shortages, and, some would argue, create jobs too.
The global installed robot population has been put at between 1.3 million and 1.6 million, depending on the robot’s lifespan. During 2013, growth in sales of robots was 12%, and double digit growth is expected to continue till 2017, with Asia experiencing the highest growth. While the majority of robots still go to industrial applications, the use of robots, and greater levels of automation that are often seen as robots, is also spreading elsewhere.
As robot capabilities grow, so does the range of applications. They can now dance, see, sense different textures, read basic emotions, walk up and down, navigate complex environments across deserts and in urban settings, learn from each other, co-ordinate in swarms – and the list continues to grow. They are already moving out of factories into warehouses, building sites, restaurants, pharmacies, operating theatres, offices, schools, homes, up in the air, onto the roads and down on the farm. There are few areas where robots will not make an impact.
As with any major new technology, disruption and job losses will be inevitable. One forecast suggests that robots could replace as many as 50 million US jobs by the 2040s; another that 47% of jobs could be replaced by computerisation – based on 700 jobs advertised currently on a university job network[ii]; others are predicting obliteration of huge numbers of middle level jobs in a variety of sectors, and 50% unemployment as a result. Others argue that the million or so robots currently in operation have created more than 3 million jobs elsewhere. It is likely to get worse, before it gets better and the new technologies generate jobs faster than they replace them.
Meanwhile we are facing both high and low level skills shortages. Ageing populations and changing attitudes to work among younger generations mean that attracting and developing new talent and the right skills will require new approaches and targeting new groups. The recent Manpower Talent Shortage survey indicates that 36% of employers globally say they are experiencing difficulties finding staff. Japan leads by a long way – 75% of employers are having difficulties, while in Ireland it is a mere 2%. Robots will be a critical element in addressing those shortfalls – in traditional areas such as manufacturing, but also in services such as media, leisure and healthcare, or low skilled areas such as fruit picking.
But, even if we need robots, are we ready to accept them. One experiment is using robots as comedians to explore the role of emotional interaction and communication, in particular the role of humour in the extent to which we are willing to accept robots and how we respond to them. This was further tested in a simulator of a driverless car. One group of passengers journeyed in silence, in the other ‘Iris’ chatted about the route. Both groups ended up in a crash, but those who had travelled in silence were much angrier and less forgiving than the group who had been guided and had the commentary from ‘Iris’. Elsewhere, the indication is that acceptance may depend on the activity a robot was undertaking: being touched by a robot was OK if it was providing care, not so if it was trying to comfort people.
The speed of their arrival and the rate at which they displace jobs - whether waiters or journalists, taxi drivers or teachers – will be a major deciding factor in the balance of benefit versus damage done. Too rapidly, and they may increase inequality, unemployment and social unrest. On the other hand, they may save governments from bankruptcy, create jobs and drive greater demand for artisan products and the sharing economy.