Are robots taking our jobs? What? All of them?

Robots are moving off the assembly line, into other areas of work. Businesses will need to adapt to take advantage of the benefits that robots can offer, while managing the impact on their human workforce. The mantras of organisational change management, leadership and culture will take on new and very real meaning.

The argument seems to be won. Robots are taking our jobs. And yes, that probably means yours too.

It’s a concept that we’ve got used to in manufacturing. General Motors installed their first assembly line robot in 1962 in a New Jersey factory. By 1980 the global robotics industry had exploded, with a new company or new robot entering the market every month.

The first death-by-robot occurred in 1979, when the arm of an assembly line robot smashed into a 25-year-old Ford Motor assembly line worker. His family was later awarded $10 million in damages. The jury agreed the robot struck him in the head because of a lack of safety measures.

These days robots have emerged from the factory floor to a workplace near you. Labour market specialists, technical innovators and human resources managers are preparing us for the time that robots do more than just the dirty work, the heavy lifting, or in the case of bomb disposal robots, the dangerous jobs.

Technological advances, including medical interventions like
remote surgery, are becoming commonplace. Snake-bot, for example, a robot devised by Carnegie Mellon Professor, Howie Choset, to worm its way around your organs to reach the heart, and perform minimally invasive surgery once it arrives.

Analysis, research, education delivery and measurement – areas where human interaction has so long been seen as crucial to success – are all potential career steps for the ever more advanced robot.

According to one estimate – from Wired magazine’s executive editor, Kevin Kelly –in ninety years “70 percent of today’s occupations will likewise be replaced by automation.”

In 2012, Rio Tinto announced a fleet of driverless trains that would allow operations to expand deeper into the remote Pilbara. A loss of 900 jobs was pinned to these robot trains – although the company believes that job creation as a consequence will ultimately be greater than the initial loss.

Australia has been an early adopter of robot technology in many fields. With its vast distances, and adverse environments there are many Australian industries in which robots are better suited than humans to carry out certain tasks. Robots have found applications in agriculture, construction, forestry and mining, as well as other areas such as search and rescue, deep sea and even space exploration.

The question isn’t ‘is this a good or a bad thing?’, but ‘what does it mean for us humans?’ Especially when it comes to our employment prospects.

Two sides of the debate are emerging. The first argues that many new kinds of jobs, which we can’t yet foresee, will emerge in this new industrial robotic era.

Another perspective, and one held by MIT Professor Erik Brynjolfsson, Director for the Centre of eBusiness, is that the new machine age will increase economic growth. The overall pie will get bigger, which is a good thing, but that this productivity will not necessarily translate into employment growth. “We will have to find a way to coexist with robots: to work alongside them, cooperatively and safely.”

“Computers get better faster than anything ever before,” says Brynjolfsson. “Achild’s
PlayStation today is more powerful than a military supercomputer from 1996.”

A McKinsey report published in 2012, suggests that while US productivity grew 20% between 2000 and 2010, job losses in manufacturing over the same period were 24%. The correlation between the two is not necessarily direct, but there may be a connection.

As Brynjolfsson suggests, our response to the robots needs to be one of co-existence. Businesses will increasingly be required to adapt to take advantage of the benefits that robots can offer while managing cultural change within the human workforce. The mantras of organisational change management, leadership and culture will take on new and very real meaning.

Last updated:
27 February 2019