Humans Still Fear That Robots Will Take Jobs or Kill People

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

April 13, 2018      

Fears over the creation of killer robots threatened a boycott of a university in South Korea. Fears that robots and automation will take jobs continued in the U.K. And in the U.S., this week saw a celebration of robotics and education across the country.

Robotics Business Review has partnered with Abishur Prakash at Center for Innovating the Future to provide its members with cutting-edge insights into recent developments in international robotics, artificial intelligence, and unmanned systems. Are you ready to be updated?

Killer robots provoke boycott in South Korea

In February, Hanwha Systems, a leading South Korean defense firm, partnered with the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) to open up a joint research center in KAIST for autonomous weapon development.

More than a month later, the emergence of an AI weapons lab caused some 50 AI researchers, from 30 countries, to threaten a boycott of KAIST. The boycott ended after KAIST assured researchers that it would not develop AI weapons.

Even if KAIST doesn’t develop AI weapons, it’s likely that other countries and institutions will. The reason? Geopolitical paranoia. Any nation that has killer robots will begin an arms race in which potential adversaries try to develop similar capabilities.

Automation threatens to take jobs in the U.K.

British services firm ADP surveyed 1,300 workers to find their attitudes about automation. It found that one in three workers believe their jobs will be replaced by robots within the next 10 years. One in 10 workers said they believe their jobs will be automated within the next two years (by 2020). Most interestingly, workers below the age of 35 believed more that robots will take jobs than any other age bracket.

At the same time, accounting firm Ernst & Young (EY), has projected that a single city — London — could lose a third of its “low to mid” skilled jobs to robots over the next 20 years. That’s around 330,000 jobs.

The big concern here is the young people that may be affected. Many low- to mid-skill jobs are taken by those entering the workforce after graduating from a university or college, as well as those making a transition between different industries.

If young people are disproportionately affected by automation, what will the next generation do? This raises the risk of more violent social movements, led by young people against the government, companies, or robots in general.

The first sign of automation-fueled protests could be seen in 2015, when the International Transport Workers’ Federation in Netherlands started protesting automation at the Rotterdam World Gateway container terminal. At the time, it was expected that 800 out of 3,700 jobs would disappear by 2017 due to automation. The protests were settled after a deal was reached largely through guaranteeing job security.

National Robotics Week signals new robotics development journey

This week saw the U.S. celebrating National Robotics Week, in which grassroots events were held across the 50 states to increase public awareness of robotics and the impacts robots will have on the future. They’ve been an opportunity for the robotics industry to address fears that automation will take jobs.

While this week is more of an educational effort, it does signal that robots have entered the mainstream in the U.S. Compare this with other countries, including emerging superpowers like China and India, where there are no National Robotics Week equivalents. Why not?

There are several reasons why, but perhaps the most important is this: In China, India, and other countries, the government is in the driver’s seat for robotics. In other words, robots will be a “trickle down” phenomenon in those geographies.

National Robotics Week logoIn the U.S., however, robotics and AI are being driven by the private sector and academia, not the government, so it is more “trickle up” as more of the public is involved.

Does the lack of a National Robotics Week outside of a handful of countries shed light on centralized versus decentralized approaches to developing the technologies and industry? If so, it isn’t a question of which country is right or wrong, but which strategy will succeed in the long run. And to answer that, only time will tell.