Jobs for the Bots

What’s the biggest threat to your job security? A migrant from a developing country who will work for less than you? Or that smart intern, wowing your boss? 

Have you ever considered that a robot could do your job? Bright and shiny, with perfect manners, and unlike an intern won’t want a paycheck after six months?

When people think about robots taking over jobs, they normally think about robots on production lines: attaching panels, spray-painting, bolting on bits and bobs. In other words, doing the drudgery that lifted millions out of poverty (or keeps millions in it, depending on the epoch, location and your point of view).

But the latest thinking shows that technology is breaking new ground in the professions too, with doctors and dentists dependent on new ways and means.

A new study, unveiled at the World Economic Forum, seems to suggest that the coming of the robotic age will play havoc with world employment, leaching about five million net jobs out of existence.

“The Future of Jobs”, based on surveys carried out in 15 countries (including Brazil, Mexico, South Africa, Turkey and India, as well as Germany, and the US) predicts that while two million jobs will be created thanks to technology, a further seven million will be lost.

The media is buying this doomsday scenario with glee, lapping it up like the plates of canapes on offer at the WEF in Davos, high in the Alps last week.

It’s certainly true that there are massive advances in tech which are making jobs obsolete, and not just the white-collar, mind-numbing assembly jobs which have, for many years, been described as “robotic” anyway.

While we won’t be going to see “Dr Robot” any time soon, doctors themselves will be using smartphone technology to diagnose diseases, just as we already keep tabs on our own heart rates, calories consumed and steps walked with our phones.

We may not ever hand our cash over to robot stockbrokers, but “Bots” (computer programmes grazing through mounds of data) can do a pretty good impression of Wall Street fund managers; getting long-term punts on safe investments for retirement stocks as reliably as humans – and without the fee.

However, Geoff Colvin, from Fortune magazine (and author of Humans are Underrated: What High Achievers Know That Brilliant Machines Never Will) is more upbeat. He predicts a new wave of jobs on the way:

“It’s easy to identify the jobs that advancing technology will eliminate next [but] it has been practically impossible to imagine the new jobs that technology will create. So we overweight the reality of the disappearing jobs and underweight the reality of the new ones. Even after the worldwide web first made the internet accessible to everyone, no one predicted jobs for search engine optimisers, mobile app developers, social media managers and countless other jobs of today.”

And what does all this mean for migration? Will the factories, farms and construction sites rely exclusively on machines? Could digital sex work be new (disease free, exploitation free) norm?

“Technological progress is going to leave behind some people, perhaps even a lot of people, as it races ahead,” MIT researchers Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee wrote in their book, The Second Machine Age, which was on everyone’s lips and screens at Davos. 

New technologies ultimately will be beneficial to humanity, they argue, but the change will maybe cumbersome.

What is being dubbed the Fourth Industrial Revolution will interfere with global labour migration. The only ones not on the move, the wisdom goes, will be those who can choose not to emigrate and those who do not have the right skill sets to move in search of work. (Who will need taxi drivers in the age of the driverless car? (Or clerks to process insurance claims, come to think of it, as there won’t be any accidents.)

Less migration might seem like a good thing, until you pick below the skin. Who is going to pay pension contributions? What will the lack of remittances do to communities in developing countries?

If commodities can be produced closer to where they are consumed (through 3D printing) then countries where low-skilled workers are currently employed will be affected, potentially driving up migration.

American author Michele Wucker, thinks that debates like Davos are welcome and relevant.

“If societies and economies fail to adapt to the major disruption ahead, we will see new waves of forced migrants and resistance to them” she says, on her website

“This will create moral dilemmas and impose heavy economic costs. Forced migration freezes the human capital embodied in refugees, while imposing costs of maintaining temporary housing and food for people who are stuck in limbo.

“That would undermine the essence of global labour migration: achieving human potential.”

One thing is for sure – the migration landscape will continue to fascinate, confound, surprise and evolve. It’s something none of us can ignore.