Robots are coming, but not for your job, says EU digital chief

09 Mar 2017 | Viewpoint
“I do not believe in the mass unemployment scenario,” Andrus Ansip tells industry heads

Humans are not going to be usurped in the workplace by robots, according to the European Commission’s digital chief Andrus Ansip, who says, “Despite all the studies, I do not think anybody really knows the degree to which jobs are affected by digital change. I do not believe in the mass unemployment scenario.”

Robots are encroaching on routine work in factories and offices in Europe at a slightly faster rate than other parts of the world.

Half of the countries in the top ten league table of most industrial robots per 10,000 employees belong to the EU and their presence is sending a bit of a shiver, with polls saying seven out of 10 people think their job will be replaced by a robot.

But it is not a zero-sum game. Robots are more likely to augment jobs than replace them, Ansip told a gathering of metal, engineering and technology-based industries in Brussels on Wednesday.

“It is very easy to blame robots. Sometimes people forget that by helping with repetitive or dangerous tasks at home and at work, robots improve daily life,” he said.

Machines also help fill positions in fields with job shortages, such as healthcare, farming and manufacturing.

Deployment of machines in the automotive sector in Germany has coincided with a rise in human employment. In France there are fewer robots but higher unemployment.

A similar argument came from Ansip’s colleague, EU Research Commissioner Carlos Moedas, recently, pointing to a 2015 study by the Fraunhofer Institute. That demonstrated that “EU companies which are intensive users of robotics are less likely to offshore production to low cost regions because robots improved their cost position so much that they can stay in high-wage regions,” Moedas said.

A review of the past tells us about the gains from automation, said Ansip. “When the Industrial Revolution began in the 1700s, there was concern about the deep-seated transformation that it would trigger. But in the longer term, that transformation and its aftermath created millions of jobs.”

Future gains will be unpredictable. For instance, until quite recently, Europe's app economy did not exist. “But it is hard to think of another industry that has created so many jobs in so little time. From a workforce of about two million in 2015, it is expected to grow to 4.8 million by 2018 – all job types, direct and indirect,” Ansip noted.

However, the Commissioner acknowledges that robots will displace some workers, such as receptionists and drivers, and Ansip said the Commission’s main response will involve designing retraining schemes.

Fear of the job-eating threat of automation has recently gripped some lawmakers in Brussels and roposals to give robot workers legal status and make their owners pay social security for them were debated – and ultimately rejected – by MEPs last month.

However, there was backing for an ethical framework for robot development and deployment and liability for the actions of robots, including self-driving cars.

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