Invasion of the job snatchers

I recently spent a few hours in the future. At least, that’s what it felt like. I got to follow one of the first robots I’ve ever seen operating in the wild, outside a lab, as it trundled around London, mapping the streets of Greenwich where it will soon work for its living. Designed by Starship Technologies of Talinn, Estonia, the robot is a decidedly cute, black-and-white coolbox riding on six wheels, and it will soon be autonomously collecting takeaway food from fast-food restaurants and delivering it to homes. Once it arrives, you simply unlock its lid with an authenticating phone app – and remove your pizza, curry or sushi.

It was as intriguing to watch people’s reactions to the robot as it was to watch the droid itself stopping obediently at pedestrian crossings, allowing cars to pass, and giving way politely to people on the sidewalk. Adults who came across the whirring robot seemed wary of it, but children and younger people, who are likely to grow up with this technology as the norm, didn’t bat an eyelid and greeted the droid with a cheery “hello!” as it passed them – as if WALL-E had turned up with their dinner.

On top of ongoing pre-service tests in London and Tallinn, Starship is also testing its robots with food delivery partners in Bern, Düsseldorf and Hamburg. But, fascinating as the little droid is, it is surely time to consider the impact on all the food-delivery people these robots will soon be putting out of work. With its wage-free, 24/7 availability a compelling attraction to fast-food and last-mile grocery delivery entrepreneurs alike, it’s the kind of technology whose impact could be profound.

That’s because Starship is far from alone in what it is doing. Similar indoor delivery robots are also currently being unleashed to bring room-service orders to hotel guests in Asia, spelling the end for many hospitality jobs. At the same time, retailer Ocado Technology of Krakow, Poland, and the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) are codeveloping – with EU funding – a humanoid robot called Secondhands that can act as a smart, dexterous and of course tireless maintenance worker.

Millions of jobs

But at what cost to jobs? Non-governmental organisations like the World Economic Forum (WEF), business consultancies like PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) and financial institutions like the Bank of England have all issued deeply concerning reports predicting that AI-fuelled automation could take away millions of jobs in coming decades.

PwC estimates that in Germany 35% of jobs will be susceptible to replacement by AI algorithms, robots and automated systems by the early 2030s, with the US at 38%, the UK at 30% and Japan at 21%. But PwC cautions that such jobs may change rather than disappear altogether, probably because it is hard to be certain where AI tech is going. No one knows what machine intelligence will be capable of in six months, let alone in a decade.

In regions of intense, low-wage manufacturing like Asia, AI-powered automation may have an even greater impact, with some 50 million jobs said to be at risk over the next two decades, according to a study by UBS. China will bear the brunt, taking 15 million of those losses alone. UBS says the trick will be to construct a strong services sector in which human jobs can flourish. It notes that Singapore, Hong Kong and India have already done just that. “Governments should start to focus more on occupations that require a high level of personalisation, creativity and craftsmanship”, says UBS analyst Sundeep Gantori.

Industrial revolutions are, of course, nothing new. The first, the mechanical revolution fuelled by James Watt’s steam engines, was followed by that of electricity and the electrical machines of Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison. That in turn was followed by the digital revolution, the computing machinery of Konrad Zuse, John von Neumann and Alan Turing.

Each of these technological insurgencies has had its own impact on employment, but they had one thing in common: the new machinery tended to create new jobs. In 2015, the consultancy Deloitte looked back at 144 years of employment data and discovered that over time more people ended up in new kinds of jobs, even if many older roles were replaced by machines. Personal computers ousted typewriters, for instance, getting rid of the need for office typists – but PCs also generated new jobs in software writing, troubleshooting IT departments and at computer-security companies.

Gunter Bombaerts

According to Gunter Bombaerts from the Eindhoven University of Technology, automation urges us to think about new ways to organise labour and the distribution of wealth.

Sum of the parts

Yet the brain-like capabilities of the Fourth Industrial Revolution – now becoming known as Industry 4.0 – make it quite different. Industry 4.0 encompasses many technologies: AI, machine learning, robotics, global connectivity, cloud computing and the Internet of Things. It’s the sum of these parts, with AI at its heart, that means machines can now use learning to continually improve themselves.

To use the earlier analogy, if PCs had been able to learn on their own how to troubleshoot themselves, and fight malware, the IT departments and antivirus industries might not have evolved, and so the jobs they created would not exist. So, self-learning systems could not only mean far fewer jobs, but a severe reduction of the role of humans as inventors and improvers of technology.

In his book The Fourth Industrial Revolution, WEF founder Klaus Schwab warns that governments cannot simply do nothing about the upcoming effects of Industry 4.0. They must regulate the new technologies to capture their benefits and prevent gross inequality and societal fragmentation.

Gunter Bombaerts, assistant professor in philosophy and ethics of technology at the Eindhoven University of Technology says that companies, workers, customers, shareholders and regulators now have a strong chance to boost everyone’s quality of life, if only they would take it. Automation, he says, could cut the amount of “deadening” work no one wants to do. He adds that it would be important to come up with new ways, for all people, to organize labor in a qualitative way and eventually distribute wealth, too.

Governments flying blind

Right now, however, nothing along the lines of Schwab and Bombaerts’ suggestions is happening. Rather than preparing for the societal shock of machine-intelligence-induced mass unemployment, governments are fuelling the problem by investing ever more heavily in research and development on AI, fearing their economies will lose out if other nations develop key technologies first. Many developed nations, for instance, are piling cash into driverless-vehicle research.

But what of the driving professionals – taxi and truck drivers – this will put out of work? How many will there be? Can the welfare system cope? As the peer-reviewed science journal Nature put it, the lack of data on how AI will affect jobs in the future means policymakers the world over are “flying blind into the next industrial revolution”. While our political and corporate leaders have their fingers in their ears, waiting for the bang, Industry 4.0 technology is proliferating apace.

At Airbus Industrie, engineers are developing an astonishing array of ideas for the aircraft factories of the future. Walk into one, wearing an augmented reality headset they have developed, and you will be able to “see”, overlaid on your visual field, which of 100 computers in a rack has been struck by a software fault or computer virus – letting you deactivate that computer immediately with a simple gesture.

At the same time, says the firm’s robotics coordinator Adolfo Suarez Roos, Airbus is developing humanoid robots that can adapt from doing extremely repetitive aircraft manufacturing tasks “where humans add no value” – to acting autonomously when needed and coping with unexpected situations. That is not easy. That’s why Swiss-based engineering giant ABB has invested in Vicarious, an AI start-up that is developing ways to give its own industrial robots “human level vision, language and motor control”. To help humans, your robot has to have at least some of their capabilities.

So much for the high end. What is more worrying on the employment front is that robots are now also being aimed at very low level, temporary jobs – including what was thought to have been a big hope for human employment: the on-demand or “gig” economy. In this, people work flexibly, being booked by employment agencies to do temporary work like packing boxes, sorting products or running quality control checks on production lines, perhaps.

But now Smart Robotics of Eindhoven has become the first company to create an employment agency for robots – with the express aim of replacing humans in the gig economy. Smart Robotics will rent modular, reconfigurable robots to companies on an ad-hoc basis to allow them to perform such picking, packing and product inspection work – and then take the robots back again when the job’s done.

On the train leaving Greenwich – after my street outing with the Starship delivery robot – it struck me that if such gig economy jobs are up for robotisation, and those of the pizza guys are too, there will be no escape from Industry 4.0 at any level. That this had occurred to me on the London Docklands Railway, which is driverless, was not lost on me.