Two-thirds of Hongkongers fear robots may replace them in workforce of the future, poll finds

Online survey of 1,013 people shows those aged 18 to 29 most concerned about such a trend

PUBLISHED : Friday, 03 November, 2017, 7:03am
UPDATED : Friday, 03 November, 2017, 1:17pm

Major leaps in technology will force man to face a new problem: how to occupy leisure time that “science and compound interest will have won for him”, British economist John Maynard Keynes once predicted.

This reality, articulated in his 1930 essay Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren, is now hardly distant and instead on the minds of Hongkongers, a survey has found.

A new poll by web-based market research and data analytics firm YouGov Omnibus found that people in the city gave serious thought to both possibilities of a utopian and dystopian future run by technology.

Conducted on 1,013 people in September, the study showed more than 70 per cent of Hongkongers look forward to using robots to help clean their home. When it came to help at work and providing security, 61 per cent and 56 per cent welcomed robots in such roles.

About half did not mind having a robot that would help move things around without supervision, such as taking out the trash, as well as carrying items on shopping trips.

And a third of respondents said they did not mind robots caring for the elderly or even providing them with companionship.

The robots are taking over ... and building Hong Kong’s future

But the research uncovered a darker side. At least two-thirds of those polled feared robots taking away their jobs, with the younger generation most uncertain about their place in the workforce.

“Despite being able to see the benefits that robots can bring, Hongkongers also recognise the threat they pose to people’s employment prospects,” the report stated.

While up to 46 per cent of those aged over 45 did not believe robots could fare better than they at their jobs, just 29 per cent of those 18 to 29 felt the same.

Of the 18 to 29 age group, at least 60 per cent said they believed a robot could do their jobs just as well or even better, compared with 51 per cent of those aged 30 to 44, and 46 per cent for those over 45.

In 2015, consultancy firm McKinsey reported that current automation technologies could already replace 45 per cent of activities people were paid to perform.

Can Hong Kong keep up with the rise of the robots?

A recent paper by Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist Daron Acemoglu and Boston University’s Pascual Restrepo found that each additional robot in the US economy could replace 5.6 workers, and for every robot added to the workforce per 1,000 human workers, wages would fall by up to 0.5 per cent.

But it is not all doom and gloom. As Keynes noted: “There is no country and no people, I think, who can look forward to the age of leisure and of abundance without a dread.”

Overall, YouGov’s new study suggested Hongkongers were cautiously optimistic.

“Three-quarters of Hongkongers believe that robots will make our lives easier and eight in 10 agree that robots can do things humans don’t want to do,” the study stated, adding that nearly 80 per cent also agreed that robots should be carefully regulated.