A few days ago, an article was published in The Economist stating that half of all jobs were vulnerable to automation. This news in itself is unsettling, to say the least. However, the article did not stop there. It also said that middle-income countries are more vulnerable, directly indicating countries such as Spain, Italy, Germany, Japan, or Chile.
New technologies, such as the Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence, and Robotics, go to show that we are facing the fourth industrial revolution (also called Industry 4.0), and that, with this revolution, a process of change has begun, before which we must either “adapt or perish.” It is not the first time that we have found ourselves facing disruptive technologies that have big impact on society. However, the differentiating factor with which we find ourselves this time is that these technologies are interacting with each other, which causes them to develop more quickly and, at the same time, more unpredictably than in other technological developments that we have experienced.
Of these technologies, I will focus on robotics, as this technology is currently generating a great deal of social debate. The term “robot” is not new, although we currently see it all over the news. The word robot had already appeared in 1920, in a play written by a Czech author. The term referred to a machine that helped with the household chores. Later, in 1974, the first industrial robot was manufactured by the ABB company (in fact, this robot is still working in Sweden). Currently, 60% of robots work in the automotive industry, which, in turn, is the industry that causes technological disruptions in the area of robotics. However, the increase of future robotics use will be seen in areas other than manufacturing, such as logistics, mobility, health, retail, and collaborative environments. Moreover, robotics is a technology that is democratizing: large businesses are not the only ones robotizing their processes. SMEs are following suit, for reasons of economy and efficiency.
In a conference a week ago, ABB’s director of robotics spoke of the double-digit increase occurring in shipments of robots throughout the world. It may surprise us to find that Asia is the continent where the number of robot shipments has increased most (19%), followed by Europe (12%) and finally, America (8%).
According to ABB, the next step, which will occasion exponential growth for the company, will be the adaptation of the digital environment to robotics: how will we handle the huge amount of data generated by this growth, and how will we interact with it (with our Smartphones, for example)? It will be essential that robots of the future are easy to use, collaborative, and usable in a digital environment.
Now, we will address the impact that this growth can have on the working world. Nowadays, we are already seeing that robots do not just serve as substitutes for factory workers. Generally speaking, we must recognize that all repetitive tasks, whether in industrial or service sectors, may be vulnerable to automation. Let us examine the recent example of the city of Dubai, which provides citizens with digital tools, such as the so-called Smart Decision-Making Platform. The Smart Decision-Making Platform recommends where to put a new store location or where to buy a new house, according to the preferences of the user, or the Smart Majlis (Majli is the term used for the assemblies where community decisions are made), where the citizens can take a picture of a service they like, send it via the platform to the city government, and, in 2 weeks, receive a response about whether or not it applies. Nowadays, even city governments are automatable.
So, it is not just an issue between “blue collar” (manual labor) vs. “white collar” (administrative labor). It has to do with repetitive tasks vs. creative tasks. Only the latter will survive. But, even so, it is necessary to adapt to the speed of transformation that surrounds us, and incorporate much more education and constant development for workers. For that reason, both the public administration and private companies have an enormous task ahead of them, of raising awareness in society, and will need to provide facilities for workers to be trained based on this new reality.
In conclusion, nobody doubts that, in the next few years, there will be a substitution of jobs for automation. Moreover, this substitution will affect all sectors of the global economy. In my opinion, the key factor is whether this substitution will occur in the short term or the medium term. In the first case, we would face a situation of massive job loss, which would be difficult to manage. The second case would allow wide enough margins for new generations to be trained according to the technological needs of the new jobs associated with this reality. A wider margin would also give the generations for which technological / digital adaptation is more difficult a chance to retire. Even so, both the public administration and companies must think and act quickly to provide a sectoral, formative, and organizational solution to the new business environment that will arrive in coming years.