Coming to a workplace near you: robots that will eat your lunch

Peter Kammerer says some societies are already going beyond training and education to test the feasibility of a universal basic income, to soften the adverse impact of technological advances

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 August, 2016, 12:46pm
UPDATED : Monday, 29 August, 2016, 9:43pm

Three decades ago in Yokohama, a tour group I had joined tried out a driverless train. The discussion when we got off half a kilometre down the tracks was about how such technology threatened the jobs of drivers.

It’s something heard increasingly more often as robots and automated machines make inroads into our lives. The taxi company Uber updated my long-ago Japanese experience recently when it announced it would soon introduce driverless cars in the American city of Pittsburgh. Strictly speaking, Uber’s Volvos won’t be driverless; there will be someone behind the wheel to monitor things as the US city’s laws don’t yet allow unmanned vehicles on the streets. But the way technology is speeding forward, it would seem the idea will become a reality in a matter of years.

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After taxis will come buses and trains and whatever other transport can operate safely without the need to pay a driver. A 2013 Oxford University study estimated that robots will have replaced about half of all jobs within 20 years.

Bank cashiers have long known about the trend and it is gradually moving into supermarkets and shops. There’s a restaurant in Mong Kok that has four robots, including a receptionist and a dress-wearing waitress, while there is a hotel in Japan that is almost fully automated.

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Production lines have had robotic arms sorting and packing for years and motorised machines zip around warehouses the world over, shaving valuable seconds off internet-placed orders to get goods off shelves and prepare them for shipping. One company in Australia is trying them out to deliver pizzas and some media companies used software during the Rio Olympic Games to write medal tallies and event reports, freeing up journalists for in-depth assignments.

There’s nothing new about innovation taking jobs; it was what drove English textile workers known as Luddites to smash weaving machines with sledgehammers 200 years ago. Society came through the industrial revolution wealthier and better developed, though, and there’s no reason to suggest robots will lead to anything else.

But with artificial intelligence and machines that can do our jobs will come a seismic shift in the work environment. Some jobs will survive, others won’t and a lot of people will have to adapt through training and education.

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There’s every possibility that a world dominated by robots will mean fewer jobs. What will those without a steady income do for money? One idea is a guaranteed basic income that a government would give all citizens, no matter what their job status or level of wealth. There are a number of terms for the concept, but one gaining traction is universal basic income.

No government has yet tried out the idea, so whether it works has still to be tested. Swiss were given a chance in June, but 77 per cent of voters in a referendum rejected it. A two-year government study will begin in Finland next year with up to 2,000 people each being given 560 euros (HK$4,900) a month, and several cities in the Netherlands also plan trials.

The basic questions are whether giving people money for nothing will encourage them to drop out of the workforce, spark innovative and creative thinking or widen wealth gaps between those who have and don’t have jobs.

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What is obvious is that only wealthy governments can entertain the concept. It clashes with other suggestions, such as the introduction of a negative income tax so that work can be encouraged.

Jobs considered most at risk by the Oxford researchers were telemarketers, tax preparers, insurance underwriters, accountants and cashiers, while mental health and substance abuse social workers, occupational therapists, dentists and surgeons were at the lower reaches. Journalists don’t fare too well, so my options are to retrain in middle age for a new career, opt out of the workforce or join the lobbying for governments to experiment with free money.

Trying to pretend robots and artificial intelligence won’t have an impact isn’t an option.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post