Robots and the future of work

Attitudes towards robots and their role in society have always fluctuated between fear and fascination. So with the robot revolution seemingly imminent, what does this mean for the global labour outlook? Are we right to be anxious, or should we be looking forward to a robot-enabled utopia?

The idea of machines stealing human jobs is nothing new. The first industrial revolution saw tractors take over from manual farm labourers and automatic looms replace human weavers. But with robots becoming increasingly able to do the jobs once solely the domain of humans, many people are becoming worried about the long-term ramifications.

From mass unemployment to economic turmoil, such doomsday predictions are naturally causing concern. But what will the future of work actually look like?

Robots and jobs today

Today, we’re already living alongside robots. They’re in our smartphones in the form of voice assistants. They’re in our homes, telling us what to watch next on Netflix. They’re packing our goods, monitoring our homes and soon they’ll be driving our cars. In the consumer space, robots have been well and truly integrated into everyday life.

So it’s only natural robots are changing the workplace. And, in a way, it’s a move that has been a long time coming. From the advent of computers and the internet, to the cloud and big data, to AI and robotics – bringing technology into the world of work to create efficiencies and grow productivity is the next natural step.

We’re already seeing a degree of automation evident across many industries. However, unlike the first industrial revolution, it’s not just blue-collar jobs at stake. Soon enough white-collar workers will need to watch out as well.


A robotic arm that can pick and pack fruit and vegetables is being tested by Ocado, the British online supermarket. The machinery is being developed in partnership with academic bodies in Germany, Italy and Austria. The goal is for the arm to be proficient at handling variable shapes of fruit and vegetables, as well as the fragile nature of produce. The SoMa robotic arm joins the SecondHands project in development and a number of other robots already in use throughout the Ocado warehousing process.


Credit: Jeffrey Sauger for General Motors

General Motors has long been regarded as a pioneer in the use of robots for assembly lines. Recently it introduced collaborative robots at its plant in Orion, Michigan. Instead of working separately, these robots are working alongside humans by taking on physically strenuous tasks such as stacking tyres. The idea is to reduce fatigue for workers who have to deal with repetitive motions and free them up to focus on problem-solving tasks instead.


Eye fatigue is a common problem for radiologists, who have to critically examine a large number of images a day. To help with this, IBM are working on a project called Medical Sieve, an AI-powered assistant designed to aid clinical decision-making in radiology and cardiology. The hope is the tool can filter and analyse radiology scans and pick up on diseases faster and more reliably than doctors.

Robots and jobs tomorrow

Offshoring in the last few decades has eaten up physical jobs and whole industries, jobs that were not replaced. The current transfer of jobs from the physical to the virtual economy is a different sort of offshoring, not to a foreign country but to a virtual one. If we follow recent history we can’t assume these jobs will be replaced either.

W Brian Arthur (via McKinsey)

Figures around the rate of automation vary according to different sources:

2013 Oxford University study estimates that by 2033, 47% of jobs in the US are ‘at risk’ of being automated, while 35% of jobs in the UK could be made obsolete.

McKinsey predicts that between 400 million and 800 million people around the world will need to find new jobs by 2030.

2017 survey by Oxford University and Yale University found that many scientists predict AI will outperform humans in a wide number of tasks in the next ten years. Examples include translating languages (by 2024), writing high-school essays (by 2026) and working as a surgeon (by 2053).

According to the World Bank Group, two-thirds of jobs in developing countries could be automated, though some experts have said poorer countries will have less money to invest in automation and so will escape the brunt of worker displacement.

A 2015 research paper by McKinsey suggests fewer than 5% of jobs today can be entirely automated by existing technology. This relatively small percentage is due to the fact the work humans do is too varied to be completed by a robot. Instead the research says 60% of jobs could see a third of what’s encapsulated being taken over by robots. In short, while most of us will hang on to our jobs, how we do our jobs is going to change.

By 2030 between 400 million and 800 million people around the world will need to find new jobs, according to McKinsey

Which jobs are most vulnerable?

A widely referenced Oxford University study looked at the likelihood of automation for a number of different occupations.

Out of 700 jobs, those with a 99% chance of automation include:

  1. Mathematical technicians
  2. Insurance underwriters
  3. Watch repairers
  4. Cargo and freight agent
  5. Tax preparers
  6. Photographic process workers and processing machine operators
  7. New accounts clerks
  8. Library technicians
  9. Data entry keyers
  10. Timing device assemblers and adjusters

Yet the study predicted some jobs would be unlikely to be automated. Jobs with a probability of 0.36% or less of being automated (based on current technology) include:

  1. Recreational therapists
  2. First-line supervisors of mechanics, installers and repairers
  3. Emergency management directors
  4. Mental-health and substance-abuse social workers
  5. Audiologists
  6. Occupational therapists
  7. Orthotists and prosthetists
  8. Healthcare social workers
  9. Oral and maxillofacial surgeons
  10. First-line supervisors of fire-fighting and prevention workers

Jobs most likely to face automation are those with predictable and repetitive patterns. Jobs unlikely to be automated have high levels of human interaction, creativity and often require many years of training.

But for those in the former camp worried about their future prospects – it’s not all bad news. A report by The Economist claimed automation will actually create more jobs. According to some sources, automation will create 13.6 million new jobs in the next ten years. However, these new jobs will be focused on engineering, software development, maintenance, design and training – roles that will be necessary thanks to the rise in machinery.

What the future holds

If automation is properly introduced and managed, it holds huge potential for the human race. Living standards can improve as the scarcity of goods is reduced. Workers can enjoy more leisure time to focus on their creative outlets. And production processes can be made more efficient, safe and environmentally friendly. According to McKinsey, widespread adoption of AI, machine learning and robotics could boost global productivity growth by between 0.8% and 1.4% annually.

However, there remains the issue of what this means for the masses of displaced workers and the economic disruption that will follow thanks to automation. Wages for jobs often remain depressed when workforces transition. Long-term policies will need to be put in place to support those who lose out. Some solutions are already being considered.

Robot tax and universal basic income

Some argue cash transfers are the best solution to ensuring everyone in society benefits from automation – and not just those in charge of technology companies. The idea is that citizens are paid a regular sum of money, regardless of their employment status, in the hopes of combatting the unintended economic consequences of automation.

There is a pretty good chance we end up with a universal basic income, or something like that, due to automation.

Elon Musk, in an interview with CNBC

Basic income is going to be all the more important. If a lot more wealth is created by AI, the least that the country should be able to do is that a lot of that wealth that is created by AI goes back into making sure that everybody has a safety net.

Richard Branson, in an interview with Business Insider

Right now, the human worker who does, say, $50,000 worth of work in a factory, that income is taxed and you get income tax, social security tax, all those things. If a robot comes in to do the same thing, you’d think that we’d tax the robot at a similar level.

Bill Gates, speaking with Quartz

The money would come from taxing the private sector, which would be able to afford the tax because of the greater profits created thanks to robots. The private sector would also benefit from more consumers purchasing goods. And, by making automation more expensive, governments have the chance to slow down the rate of automation and help fund other types of employment.

Many experts are in favour of such a plan. However, critics fear a robot levy would hinder growth and innovation.

The problem with this definition is that it’s so broad, it would categorize almost all technology – including most modern household appliances, computers, and smartphones – as robots. So where do we draw the line? Indeed, why single out robots to be taxed and not other technology that increases automation, productivity, or quality?

Steve Cousins, CEO of Savioke

This wealth transfer from those who have invested in and profited from AI to displaced workers could ease some of the economic consequences of automation. However, investment in AI in different countries varies and some may struggle to catch up. Where those countries’ populations lose out on jobs because they can be done more efficiently elsewhere by machines, where does the wealth transfer come from?

In 2017 South Korea introduced what was called the world’s first tax on robots. As reported by the Korea Times, it wasn’t a direct tax – rather, it was a limit to tax incentives for investments in automated machinery. However, the sentiment was there: the policy was designed to make up for lost income taxes as machines take over human work, and prepare the government’s welfare budget ahead of expected higher unemployment.

The robots are coming, so what next?

How should we prepare ourselves to make sure we’re ready for this new robot-fuelled world? It’s a huge change that will require a multifaceted approach.

Investing in future skills is a must. School curriculums will need to change to reflect future needs. And at the same time, employees will also need to continually upskill and reskill throughout their careers. Businesses and training institutions will need to be on hand to facilitate this.

Public institutions will also be needed to regulate how automation affects society and address ethical issues. They should be able to guide regulators and private companies to ensure automation doesn’t worsen social inequalities. Unemployment insurance and guaranteed job-hunting assistance are just some avenues worth exploring.

Furthermore, ensuring tomorrow’s robots reflect wider needs is a must. Currently, men make up 70% to 90% of employees at some of the biggest tech companies. This may create a future where robots fail to cater to the wider society. All the while, women and certain ethnic minorities are more likely to work lower skilled jobs. Inequalities could worsen if automation were to displace these workers.

Tomorrow’s robot workforce

Judging from past industrial revolutions, resisting technological change is futile. Robots have huge potential to augment our jobs, releasing us from mundane, repetitive labour and freeing us up to pursue more creative endeavours. Wealth will be created, as will free time. But for this revolution to happen smoothly and be to the benefit of all humankind, the acceleration of automation will need be properly managed. It’s crucial businesses and governments work together and act now to ensure tomorrow’s world is just and equal.

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