Since the early 2000’s, we’ve steadily come to regard a number of concepts in business as almost universally true. The death of the high street, the Great Resignation – they’re ideas, whether true or untrue, that we just can’t shake. However, there are few of these apparent truisms as persistent as “Robots are going to replace us”. Is there any truth to the claim though? Or is it simply a holdover from sci-fi and the dystopian worlds that they imagine? In truth, it’s a bit of both.
Unfortunately, many robots are now capable of greater precision, efficiency and cost-effectivity than humans. It’s an inconvenient truth, and it is what’s led a number of businesses to rally behind the industrial robotics market. Based on early estimates, this market is projected to grow from $15.60 billion in 2021 to $31.13 billion in 2028. In under a decade, industrial robotics could be worth nearly twice as much as they are currently. Does this also mean that we’re on course for record unemployment figures then?
Between 1990 and 2007, around 400,000 jobs were lost to automation in the US. Although this estimate – from economists Pascual Restrepo and Daron Acemoglu – is not surprising, it will be unwelcome news to many. By 2007 robotics had still yet to reach the technological potential of today, and yet robotic replacement was already underway. Pair this with the leaps and bounds made in the years since – in some cases literally – and it seems as though it’s only a matter of time before we’re all handed our P45s, perhaps even by a robot that’s replaced our manager.
It’s a notion that seems increasingly credible when we look at estimates for 2022. For example, the International Federation of Robotics has predicted that roughly 584,000 robotic units are going to be shipped this year. With this in mind, are our days at work numbered?
In truth, this isn’t all that likely, at least, not yet. Though the robotics revolution has accelerated dramatically, robots are still unable to replicate many human skills. Robots are clinical and, consequently, though they are free from the mental and physical distractions humans experience every day, this isn’t always an advantage. For instance, though they’ve been used in creative fields extensively to make music or art, the result lacks a human touch and feels just slightly off.
Additionally, our jobs aren’t limited to any single task – they’re made up of several; naturally, it’s difficult to automate here. Whilst robots can achieve certain tasks within our roles, it doesn’t mean that they can do them all as proficiently. For those roles with multiple levels of complexity and critical thinking robots currently find it difficult to keep up.
As emotional beings, humans distrust anything that feels artificial in some way. This is why concepts like the uncanny valley ring so true in the modern day. Ultimately, we’ll find it difficult to surrender control to robots as long as they look like them. As such, it’s unlikely that robots will replace humans in customer facing roles where empathy and communication are essential.
Finally, many envisage the future of robotics in our organizations as interdependent, with robots augmenting human potential. Amazon have already realized significant success in this field, deploying around 200,000 robots to assist staff. Tye Brady – Chief Technologist at Amazon – explained how the company plans to use robotics both now and in the future in a recent interview with the BBC. On Amazon’s future use of robotics, he stated; “the way I think about this it is a symphony of humans and machines working together”.
Are Robots Going to Replace Us?
For some, the threat of robotic replacement is very real, particularly in those sectors where automation can be easily instituted. According to analysis firm Oxford Economics, as many as 20 million roles in manufacturing could be replaced by 2030. Another rule that Oxford hinted at is that the more repetitive the role, the great the risk of replacement. It’s for this reason that we’ve seen robots steadily take over car production facilities and the operations therein. However, the firm was also keen to stress that this move would also create new jobs and boost economic growth.
For others, the risks are less severe. In positions where creativity, empathy and communication are key, robots cannot currently keep pace with humans. As well as this, there’s still an insistence from business leaders that robots will augment rather than replace their workforces. These factors will both limit robots from replacing us in the immediate future. It’s clear then that we need to shift our thinking not from robots as competition but to robots as allies.
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