Robots and the future of work


We are living at the start of what many believe to be a fourth industrial revolution, with robotics and artificial intelligence expected to have an impact on our lives to the same extent as the development of the steam engine, electricity, and computing.

Robots have been used in the manufacturing process for cars, planes, electronics, and many other products for a number of years, and new advances in technology has meant that these robots can increasingly take on more and more of the workload, often at the expense of factory employees.

These factory robots are mostly relatively simple machines that have been designed and programmed for a single task, but artificial intelligence has now become a sufficiently mature technology that hugely complex decisions and actions will soon be made by machines.

Recently, the European aeronautics firm Airbus committed to a 15-year plan to develop humanoid robots that can perform the same complex tasks previously only thought possible to be done by skilled employees.

It is not just factories that have seen the creep of automation, with fast-food restaurants experimenting with automating more of the food preparation process and Google and others successfully trialling driverless cars across many cities around the world.

Even in the highly complex worlds of law and medicine and law, artificial intelligence has begun breaking down barriers, with IBM’s Watson offering natural language processing and machine learning to provide insights to help doctors and lawyers in what IBM describes as “a new partnership between people and computers”.

The change is coming, and quickly, and millions of low paid and low skilled jobs will be lost to automation over the next decade, but each previous industrial revolution has resulted in more jobs being created than were ever lost – and the same will likely be the case with robotics and artificial intelligence.

A 2013 study by researchers at Oxford University posited that as many as 47% of all jobs in the United States are at risk of “computerization”, but this does not give the whole picture. Where now factory workers directly manufacture products, these people could be transformed into robot managers where they oversee a team of robots performing the same function –hugely boosting production, but still with human oversight.

Before the industrial revolution people organised and co-worked with animals to provide the physical labour, and the robotics revolution will mean that we will fall back into that role, but with much more efficient and specialised robotic co-workers.

In this first of a five part video series for the Financial Times, Murad Ahmed explores whether robots will become a friend or foe in the workplace

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