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Who’s afraid of robots? How they change work and relationships


Jiuguang Wang | CC BY SA 2.0

Paul De Maeyer - published on 06/21/18

There are two sides to every coin, but although automation raises concerns, it is advancing irresistibly.

“Intelligent machines are substituting for human beings in innumerable tasks, forcing millions of workers and employees to stand in line at employment offices or, worse still, in welfare lines.” This is how respected American economist Jeremy Rifkin sounded the alarm in 1995 in his book The End of Work.

Polls in America

Today, nearly two out of three Americans (65 percent) expect that within 50 years computers and robots “will do much of the work currently done by humans,” according to a study published in March 2016 by the Pew Research Center. Of those holding this opinion, 15 percent are convinced that this will “definitely” happen, while 50 percent think it will “probably” happen.

The same study also shows that those who are concerned about the future of their jobs are, above all, employed in physical or manual labor; 17 percent of them are concerned that their employer will substitute human labor with machines or computers, whereas among employees whose jobs do not involve manual labor, only 5 percent share this concern.

Many Americans, then, are worried about this transition. This is confirmed by a survey carried out in May 2018 by the Brookings Institution, working with a group of 1,535 adult internet users. While 13 percent of those interviewed replied that artificial intelligence (AI) will not influence their profession, and 12 percent are actually convinced that it will create jobs, more than a third (38 percent) said that, on the contrary, it would reduce jobs.

Of those interviewed, 37 percent did not reply, or said they didn’t know. As compared to women, men were more likely to say that AI would reduce jobs: 42 percent of men vs. 34 percent of women.

In addition, nearly half of the Americans who participated, 49 percent, said that AI would reduce personal privacy. While 34 percent gave no answer or said they didn’t know, a little more than one in 10 (12 percent) said that it would have no effect on privacy, and 5 percent believe it will increase privacy. In this regard as well, men are more likely to respond that artificial intelligence will reduce privacy: 54 percent of men vs. 44 percent of women.

Many experts are confident

Participants in a conference last June 4-5 at MIT in Cambridge spoke in encouraging tones about the future of labor. As recounted by Tom Davenport in Forbes, personalities such as Tye Brady, the CTO of Amazon Robotics, and Mellonie Wise, CEO of Fetch Robotics, reassured the public. Wise said, for example, that her company’s robots haven’t eliminated any jobs at all.

Although automation and AI are making advances, the contribution of human beings will always be needed in one way or another. Canadian economist Joe Atikian, author of the book Industrial Shift: The Structure of the New World Economy, is convinced of this, and offers some examples. At supermarkets, the number of self-checkout machines will soon surpass that of ATMs, but nonetheless, the job of cashier remains “one of the three largest stable occupations,” Atikian observes in the Globe and Mail.The same holds true for airlines; for decades now, commercial airliners have been loaded with information systems and automation, but the so-called “last mile problem” still makes fully automated commercial jets impossible. It is important, the author concludes, to offer assistance to those workers “whose livelihoods get irretrievably sidelined by the technological developments that help everyone else progress.”

What about Europe?

Regarding the Old Continent, the Huffington Post presents the case of the city of Sunderland in northern England, which, because of robots, risks losing nearly a third of its jobs.

The alarm was sounded last January in a study by the independent think tank Centre for Cities. Nevertheless, Sunderland—where Nissan, among others, has facilities—was praised by the president of TechUK, an organization representing nearly a thousand tech companies, as “leading the way for digital.”

The city is home to an innovative tech hub, called Sunderland Software City, which through its program Go Reboot offers young (and not-so-young) people the possibility of attending formation courses for professional retraining. “For every job that’s potentially lost, there’s a job potentially created,” says Jill McKinney, head of skills and training, to the Huffington Post. She emphasizes the importance of “demystifying” the tech and digital sectors, which are “like any other… not something to fear.”

A study published in 2015 by the noted consulting and financial advisory services firm Deloitte confirms this optimistic perspective, the Huffington Post reports. Technology has, in fact, contributed to the loss of 800,000 lower-skilled jobs, but at the same time, there is “strong evidence” that it has also made possible the creation of nearly 3.5 million new higher-skilled jobs, the study points out.

Interesting information has also emerged from a study sponsored by the German Ministry of Research and carried out by the Zentrum für Europäische Wirtschaftsforschung (ZWE, or Center for European Economic Research), headquartered in Mannheim. On one hand, Spiegel Online explains, the automation of productive processes has, in the period 2011-2016, substituted for 5 percent of the German workforce, but on the other hand, this loss has been fully compensated by the creation of new jobs. In fact, from 2011 to 2016, digitalization has led to a 1 percent overall increase in job creation, says one of the authors of the study, Terry Gregory.

The introduction of information technology and of the computer in the past had a similar impact, the Spiegel explains. The massive use of electronic data management cost many secretaries and other employees their jobs; however, according to ZEW, computerization caused a 1.2 percent annual increase in employment from 1995 to 2011.

The other side of the coin is that investments in new technologies have promoted inequality over the past five years. In fact, the magazine concludes, the salaries of highly-paid professionals have grown much more rapidly in comparison with the medium- and low-paid jobs.

The same subject was also discussed in the above-mentioned conference at Cambridge by Robert Solow, now 93 years old, who won the Nobel prize in Economics in 1987. The famous MIT economist’s main concern is that “robots and AI will further increase inequality, which is already substantial and growing.”

Increasingly omnipresent

While robots and “Industry 4.0” represent, therefore, a challenge for governments and companies as well as for less qualified workers, these technologies are also a “high-speed train” they can’t afford to miss. Last April, the European Union launched an ambitious plan to develop AI to “close the gap with the USA, China, and Japan,” writes, an online news outlet focused on digital economy and innovation.

The advance of robots and automatization is, indeed, unstoppable. A few examples show this to be true. Japan—the Land of the Rising Sun, which isn’t just on the vanguard regarding automatization, but must also deal with a population that is decreasing in numbers and increasing in age—is preparing to adopt en masse the phenomenon of “robot caregivers.” The government hopes that, by 2020, four out of five elderly people will accept being assisted at least in party by a robot, according to The Guardian, which bases this on the Japanese government’s plan of action: New Robot Strategy.Japan’s Robot Strategy (2015). In this way, the document explains, the number of nurses and caregivers suffering from lower back pain could be reduced to zero (p. 65).

Also in Japan, the guests at a “smart hotel” in Hamamatsucho, in the center of the capital, Tokyo, are already welcomed at the front desk by polyglot humanoid robots, reports Euronews.

And in operating rooms around the world, robotic surgery is making inroads. Developed nearly 20 years ago, in 1999, by American company Intuitive Surgical, the surgical robot Da Vinci is present in nearly 3000 health institutions worldwide. The robot, still controlled remotely by a “flesh and blood” surgeon, is used above all for prostatectomies, and for removing tumors in the abdomen and uterus, reports

Another development, this one problematic and morally debatable, is that of robotic sex dolls. This concern is especially caused by the Roxxxy sex doll, from American company True Companion, which has a preset mode to resist the advances of the client. According to activist Kate Parker, founder of the Schools Consent Project, Frigid Farrah — that’s what the mode is called — normalizes sexual violence and non-consensual sex. For robotics as well, then, the proverb is true: there are two sides to every coin.

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