Navigating the Future of Robot Economies

Minsk, Belarus - A schoolboy controls the Girobot with iPad (Credit: Alisia Kan. January 3, 2017).

In 2016, I interned at the Global Innovation Center of Henry Schein, a New York-based global distributer of dental, medical, and veterinary equipment and products. One afternoon, I was lucky enough to meet one-on-one with the company’s CEO, Stanley Bergman. During our conversation, Mr. Bergman said something I will always remember: “Smart professionals do not look at where the market is today. Instead, they constantly try to understand where the market is heading, and they prepare themselves so that they remain competitive.” This holds especially true when it comes to robot economies, where robots are increasingly taking over jobs typically performed by people.

Our generation faces an uncertain and unbalanced technological and economic future. Robots are sophisticated and fast learning machines, and, as their development progresses, they will be able to replace high-skill, high-wage jobs. According to recent studies, about 47% of total US employment and 50% of jobs in Japan are vulnerable to potential replacement by robots and computerization in the near future. According to a report by the International Federation of Robotics, installations of robot technology in Chinese industrial settings increased by 27% in 2016 and are expected to grow to 75% by 2019.

The economic shock for countries will play out in many sectors: expanding gaps between social classes as a result of soaring income inequality, a widening gap in purchase power, and a continuous divergence between economic growth, productivity, and wages. Within the next ten to twenty years, there will be massive job replacements in different industries including legal, financial, and manufacturing. We should be prepared to perceive robots as new “fellows” in the workforce who have the skills and talent to challenge us in new ways with their unlimited potential.

Today, an increasing number of jobs require skills such as advanced analytical capabilities and a data-friendly mindset. Machines continue to demonstrate unmatched responsiveness to human-designed algorithms. They will learn from us and from the tasks we give them faster than we learn from them. Humans might not be able to match robots in these areas, but we can take steps to ensure that we have other skills that help us to continue to design, innovate, and lead in the workplace.

In the short-term, we should seek professional and vocational training in parallel to traditional education, especially for fields that require human-centered personal services and have not seen growing robot economies. In the medium-term, we should be prepared to collaborate with and complement robots. Human-robot collaboration can help professionals, businesses, and economies cope with short- and medium-term economic shocks.

Robots employees could be a better economic choice for employers: they do not need health insurance, they sign no legal contracts, they take no vacation, and they will not -at least for the foreseeable future- sue their employers for overworking or mistreating them. Our advantage as humans is that we possess the most sophisticated invention in existence – the human brain, which powers our creativity, curiosity, and artistic sensibilities.

In our increasingly globalized and complex world, it is essential we allow an unfettered stream of ideas from all cultural, professional, economic and social directions to emerge.  Our deeply human qualities of imagination and love are unique to us, and we must take steps that encourage us to freely innovate in multiple directions, rather than in one single area if we want to continue to grow. 

A version of this article was written for the 2018 Global Essay Competition at  St. Gallen Symposium


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