List

Will a robot soon take your job, or will the opposite be true: will robots create new jobs for you? This was one of the topics discussed at the RoboNED conference, the largest robotics conference in the Netherlands, on June 3, 2015.

‘Do you want to hear about the radical or the classical economic view?’ asks Bernard ter Haar, director-general of the ministry of Social Affairs and Employment who gave the keynote on the topic. The ‘radical view’ it is. Ter Haar, himself a physicist, suggests a simple model:

Bernard ter Haar: Man vs. machine

Bernard ter Haar: Man vs. machine

Two lines, one representing the price of human labor and one representing the price of robots. While robots are already cheaper for simple tasks, humans still win when it comes to more complex tasks. But beware, both lines are shifting: robots and humans get better – and thus cheaper – at doing complex task, but the curve for robots shifts faster, leaving more and more humans behind. A similar story can be told for advances in computing, ter Haar argues. The result? A polarization of the labor market. Mid-range routine jobs dissapear, while the number of low- and high-level non-routine jobs rises. Wages at the bottom come under pressure as more and more jobs are being replaced by technology. Especially endangered: the low educated. Who wins? Capital, and the highly educated. So far, nothing sounds very radical. ‘Is a paradigm shift needed?’, ter Haar asks. Currently, being a member of society is almost equated with having a paid job – but maybe there are other ways to contribute to society? But how would people receive an income if not from a paid job? Maybe a basic income is the solution. But how to pay for it? We already have a kind of ‘basic income’ for the elderly which we have difficulties paying for, says ter Haar. Much higher taxes on those who will still have a paid job and on capital? But then those people might simply leave the country. The suggested solutions are everything but radical: lower the cost of employment, especially for low-paid jobs, education to keep up with technology, and higher public and private investment.

Marieke Blom, Chief-Economist at ING sees robots as a force of job creation. But first, what is a robot? The industrial robot, your dishwasher, your smartphone? Blom decides to use the term ‘robot’ as a placeholder for all these technologies. Then, she categorizes technological change into product innovation, process innovation and changes in market structure. Product innovation creates new jobs, she argues. ‘Think of all the jobs related to smartphones’. There are app-developers, designers, engineers. And process innovation? The industrial robot replaces jobs. But the robot also needs to be installed, programmed, maintained – and soon a new robot will be needed as technology progresses. All these are new jobs – and while there is no manufacturer of industrial robots in the Netherlands, the Dutch are good at providing robots-related services.

Marieke Blom: What is the real challenge

Marieke Blom: What is the real challenge

Hence no need to worry? Not quite. ‘The speed of technological change accelerates’, says Blom and advocates life-long learning – an even more important challenge in an ageing society. Finally, not only employees need to adapt to advancing technology. The speed of technological progress is a challenge for business as well.

In the panel discussion which follows, Blom and ter Haar are joined by Stefano Stramigioli, chairman at RoboNED and professor for robotics and mechatronics at the University of Twente, and Robert-Jan Sips, Research lead at IBM Centre for Advanced Studies. Maarten Steinbuch, professor for mechanical engineering at the University of Technology Eindhoven moderates. Steinbuch shows a cartoon about the evolution of artificial intelligence.

Maarten Steinbuch: Will AI outsmart us soon?

Maarten Steinbuch: Will AI outsmart us soon?

If artificial intelligence progresses exponentially, will computers outsmart humans in the foreseeable future, he asks? ‘You are not talking about robots here, but about computers!’ stresses a member from the audience. The progress in robotics is linear rather than exponential, he says – and the human hand is still far more versatile than even the best robots.

The robots are waiting next door in the exhibition hall. They are impressive and some of them are built to interact savely with human beings. But for the time being a quote attributed to a 1965 NASA report advocating manned space flight still seems to hold: “Man is the lowest-cost, 150-pound, nonlinear, all-purpose computer system which can be mass-produced by unskilled labor.”

So will your job soon be replaced by technology? It depends. If it requires a combination of fine motor skills with complex and creative thinking you are pretty safe for now. Sounds like we should all become artists? Well, then we get into the economics of superstars, but that’s a whole different story.