Robots, digital skills, and jobs

By David

There is no doubt that automation will continue to free people up from routine jobs, jobs that are dangerous, and jobs that can be done better by machines. Putting people out of work is not a good thing if they don’t have skills to find new, and more fulfilling jobs. But where does the responsibility lie to ensure that people have those skills?

I was surprised to find that the International Federation of Robotics predict that in the next five years robotics will be a major driver for global job creation. Many of these jobs will be in the robotics sector itself, and many of them will be knowledge based jobs requiring new skills. The intersection of robots, digital skills, and jobs raise many questions in a country like South Africa with its highly politicised and unionised workforce. What is the role of a union in this context? Should they protect the shrinking pool of industrial-era-type existing jobs, or provide its members with information and training to equip them to do the jobs of the future?

In Capgemini’s Digital Transformation Review No. 5, Per Vegard Nerseth, the Managing Director of ABB Robotics talks about the current state of the robotics industry and where it’s going. Four quotes stood out for me.

We need to find ways to make robots easier to use so that they do not require a highly skilled workforce to operate.

More robots will require skilled people to maintain and service them. But Nerseth says that we will increasingly see robots that can program themselves. Does this mean that for a robot to be dependent on a human – an error prone creature – is high risk?

A manual paint job for a car usually utilises 20-30% more paint compared to robotized painting.

Nerseth says that a single robot can replace many workers on a production line, work faster, and with greater efficiency, leading to dramatic cost reduction. Another driver to get more robots on production lines is the high cost of replacing people, which includes recruitment and training.

The industry is looking at ways to make robots work more closely with human beings, so that they can actually collaborate.

We will see more robots working alongside humans on production lines and beyond. Due to strict safety laws robots currently need to be caged in when they work alongside people. The challenge is going to be to design robots that are safe, and pleasant to work with.

The market for consumer robots have not taken off in the way it was expected.

This is not surprising. Tasks like cooking and house cleaning are both subjective and require the ‘human touch’. The areas where service robots are predicted to take off are in medicine and surgery.

The machines are racing ahead, but as a society we are not. Instead, they are posing questions that we’re struggling to answer. In 1900 no one would have believed that 69 years later people will fly to the moon. Are we at a similar juncture now where 50 years from now we’ll be hanging out, and working with, smart machines and liking it, or not? What concerns me is that the technology is moving faster than our ability to think about what it means for us. But that is not what technology wants.