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Why Robots May Not Be a One-Way Express Train to Mass Unemployment

July 18, 2016 by Michael Rander 29

The advent of the digital economy, robots, artificial intelligence (AI), and process automation is already starting to drive a significant loss of jobs in certain sectors, and the trend will only intensify over the coming years.

While this should be a great concern for us all, as a substantial part of our global population is affected, there’s a question of whether this second machine age will truly cause a unidirectional loss of jobs across the workforce or instead create a whole new segment of jobs.

New robots, AI, and other technologies are becoming an integral part of the workforce. But at the same time, new employment opportunities are created to manage, operate, and maintain these 21st-century workforce additions. Although the automation of labor-intensive manufacturing operations, for example, might not result in a net positive impact, as masses of workers are replaced by machines with just a few new oversight jobs created on the positive side, there is still room for optimism.

New Technology Brings a Reimagined Job Market

The creation of net-new jobs in the coming years is driven by a mix of social and technological factors. As the aging population grows, jobs in healthcare and personal care will boom and remain free from automation since personal touch and connection are valued in these roles. Likewise, people with specific technology-related skills and education will be in high demand to move existing technology and innovation forward.

While there’s little doubt that these sectors will continue to thrive, increased adoption of technology will also create a whole range of new job categories such as:

  • Drone-traffic optimizer: As drones become commonplace in everything from Amazon delivery services to toys for the kids and hardware for the military, there will be a need for drone-traffic optimizers to control and regulate airspace.
  • Smart-house installer: As the Internet of Things connects our appliances, security systems, light bulbs, and all things electrical, the smart house will become an industry in and of itself. Those who have the skills and talent to manage and install the latest smart-home technology will be looking at a huge job market full of potential and growth.
  • 3D printer chefs: As 3D printing becomes more widespread and versatile, we might see the need for high-tech chefs who understand the technical ways of the 3D food printer, as well as the intricate techniques of the soufflé.
  • Virtual reality designer: As virtual reality (VR) is integrated into our private and work lives, VR designers will be in demand to get our creative juices flowing outside of the traditional office environment.

Will Robots and AI Bring Opportunity to All?

Until these jobs come to fruition, the overall impact of technology on the workforce remains unclear. In fact, one UK study revealed that technology will likely create 3.5 million higher-skilled jobs, adding £140 billion to the UK’s economy in new wages with a net positive impact, even though it has contributed potentially to the loss of 800,000 lower-skilled jobs in the short term.

On the flip side, the World Economic Forum recently indicated that it expected 5.1 million jobs to be lost globally by 2020. This trend is largely attributed to automation, which is followed by a decline in office and administrative tasks, manufacturing, and construction.

Nevertheless, it’s obvious that certain groups will be hit harder than others by the rise of the robots and workforce automation. Manual labor workers and low-tech, low-education groups whose jobs are not centered around human interaction, innovation, idea generation, and data or technology in some form are certainly at risk of being automated in the near future.

The rise of the robots is not the end of work as we know it, but rather an evolution of the workforce. Just like the Industrial Revolution changed the workforce dramatically over 100 years ago, the digital economy of today is paving the way for the digital worker of tomorrow. And let me reassure you: This next-generation workforce is indeed very human and knows how to use technology to bring new levels of innovation, insight, and value.

New jobs will be in demand. But a more critical question is looming: How do we position our companies, our workforce, and our society to maximize the value of the digital worker while minimizing the societal impact of automation?

Learn more about the rise of the digital worker and the future of work. Read the Digitalist’s executive research white paper “Live Business: The Rise of the Digital Workforce.”

Michael Rander is the Global Research Director for Future Of Work at SAP

This story originally appeared on The Digitalist Magazine as part of the 10 Weeks of Live Business series.

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