Time to wake up to the rise of the robots and its implications

A ‘fourth industrial revolution’ is on the way that could lead to millions of job losses in Europe and the developing world, writes Kyran Fitzgerald

Time to wake up to the rise of the robots and its implications

It is 200 years since the Luddites were active.

The Luddites were a group of English industrial workers who smashed up the machines that were displacing them from their jobs as weavers.

They caused considerable disruption eventually provoking parliament into passing a law making industrial sabotage a capital offence.

Could the Luddites be on the point of making a comeback?

This may seem a strange question to pose given that employment in much of the advanced world is approaching record levels with Irish unemployment at levels last seen in 2008 and Britain’s labour market continuing to offer opportunities to hundreds of thousands across the globe.

A couple of years ago, the US Bureau of Labour Statistics confidently predicted that numbers at work in America in 2020 would be almost 15% higher than in 2010.

Among their predictions was a 70% increase in the number of home health and personal care aides and a 60% increase in the number of biomedical engineers.

But something strange has been happening. The pace of automation appears to be accelerating and with it, disquiet about the implications for global society.

In the past week, it has been reported that the Chinese manufacturer, Foxconn, has axed 60,000 jobs at its facilities, while the German shoe giant, Adidas, is building a new plant back in Germany which will be entirely staffed by robots.

The result, once again, will be large-scale job losses in Asia. Rival, Nike, is also engaged in the introduction of robotics into its facilities.

Of course, robots have been around for decades, particularly in Japan and across the auto industry. It’s just that they seem to be getting a lot cleverer.

In Japan, the world’s most rapidly ageing society, nursing robots have been developed: the little creatures are able to lift patients into wheelchairs and it is reckoned that ‘humanoid’ robots will take over much of the care of the elderly in their homes.

Should the use of these beings become widespread, it could possibly play havoc with those projections of increased employment in the caring sector, not least given the heavy financial pressures that local authorities and private nursing homes are currently faced with.

In the transport sector, Volvo is already trialling unmanned vehicles in underground mines in partnership with Swedish mining group, Boliden.

Last month, the European Union ran a trial of unmanned juggernauts, taking part in convoys of trucks in close proximity to each other, as part of an energy saving measure.

Could the Yorkie-chomping long distance truck driver be about to join the 19th century weavers and 20th century coopers in the industrial junkyard? And will taxi men and chauffeurs be far behind?

Volvo is planning, next year, to trial 100 driverless cars in the Swedish city of Gothenburg, with a similar number being rolled out in Greenwich and Milton Keynes.

Gothenburg University academic, Ola Benderim, cautions that it will be some time before these “automatic pilots” are in a position to replicate human beings behind the wheel.

But Volvo boss, Haken Samuelsson, predicts that the advent of such technology will bring about an 80% reduction in the number of car crashes by 2035.

That, in turn, could put a whole industry at risk, the insurance sector. It could also leave some nurses and doctors with time to spare.

Insurer, Swiss Re, has warned that the premium income in the 14 large motor insurance markets in the world is set to drop by $20bn a year by 2020.

By that stage, more than two-thirds of new cars sold will have some form of connection to both the internet and to other cars.

All of which has led experts and leaders to conclude that the fourth industrial revolution is around the corner, and with this conclusion has come an added sense of panic about the implications of what threatens to be the greatest displacement of established employment in history.

At the extreme end of the alarmist spectrum is Andrew Haldane, chief economist of the Bank of England. He believes that robots could threaten 15m jobs with the labor market being “hollowed out” and the gap between rich and poor widened.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) has warned that seven million jobs in the world’s largest economies could be at risk over the next five years from robotics and 3D printing alone.

The political implications of massive job displacement in Asia and other regions are only now being pondered.

North Africa and the Middle East serve as cautionary tales for what can happen when job markets fail to absorb an expanding youth cohort.

Klaus Schwab, founder of the Davos forum, has called for a debate on the response to this fourth industrial revolution.

The political and business establishment, trade unions included, have been silent while our technology bosses press ahead with the implementation of their panglossian visions.

A serious discussion and follow-on intervention is required before a host of awkward facts become established on the ground.

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