Are robots really going to steal our jobs?

24th January 2019
Alex Lynn

It’s a brave new world. Industrial automation and robotics are wiping out jobs across the board, swathes of people are roaming the streets unemployed and food is being rationed by an artificial intelligence, which decides how much to give them based on its perceived view of their value to society. Or at least that’s what popular culture and national news media would have us believe.

By Stephen Hayes, managing director of Beckhoff Automation.

That’s why it was refreshing to see a more realistic view of the impact of automation presented in a recent episode of Dr Who.

The Doctor and her companions visited a futuristic version of a warehouse and distribution centre and found that nearly the entire workforce consisted of humanoid robots, with humans making up just ten percent of the staff.

As you can imagine, the programme was addressing the creeping, and wholly irrational, fear that ‘robots will take our jobs’. It was an analysis of the mass automation anxiety we are seeing in the UK and Europe, embodied perfectly when one of the characters, Dan, said, ‘whilst we were busy staring at our phones, technology went and nicked our jobs’.

But there was a rational voice. As the programme concluded, the Doctor said, ‘The systems aren't the problem. How people use and exploit the system, that's the problem...’

We have similar rational voices in industry. For example, last year, the UK Government published Made Smarter, a review of I4.0 in the UK, which brought together executives from companies such as IBM, GKN, Rolls Royce, and SIEMENS. The report estimated that Intelligent Digital Technologies (IDTs) could create a net 175,000 jobs and boost industrial production by 25%.

At Beckhoff we naturally have an interest in making IDT, as well as technology in the wider automation arena, as accessible and profitable as possible for industry. Our TwinCat automation software suite helps do this by delivering a single platform for multiple automation applications, from robotics and vision through to Programmable Logic Controllers (PLCs), motion control and Human Machine Interfaces (HMIs).

This delivers multiple benefits, including eliminating the additional CPU that would normally be required for robot control in some applications, reducing engineering costs and improving performance and accuracy by reducing, or eliminating, the need for communication between multiple CPUs.

The robot tax
One of the key economic concepts for government to iron out before IDT can deliver that performance, is the contributory capacity that robots, automation and AI fulfil in the overall economy.

Clearly, robots fulfil a production role by contributing to the manufacture of a product in the same way a person would. Similarly, automation equipment can speed up the delivery of a sale by making a process faster. At present though, machinery, including robots, don’t have a legal fiscal capacity, and thus don’t pay tax, even when it replaces a human worker.

In fact, many of the technologies that are considered to be robots and are used in industry actually attract significant tax benefits, not least the capital allowances their purchase creates for the business that buys them.

The core question is, how should business contribute to the provision of a universal basic income, in the absence of human workers paying national insurance and income tax?

There is also a question of what exactly AI is and where the line is drawn between AI and the result of an algorithm. This point has historically been clear in engineering, but the convergence of IT and engineering, and the marketing of the resultant products and services, has blurred the question significantly.

Given that a robot or AI can also not own a patent, invention or any kind of intellectual property, there are serious questions about whether assigning it fiscal capacity could be a move that comes without very significant red tape. Would an AI with fiscal capacity operating in tandem with a plant management system be able to own the financial results of a process improvement for instance?

Right now, that question is nothing more than rhetoric, but with global governments genuinely considering a Universal Basic Income, it will one day become valid.

“Automation will change work and if it leads to fewer people in the workforce, governments will need other ways to raise taxes just to fund existing services, let alone rising welfare demands,” explained David Fagan, adjunct professor of business at QUT (Queensland University of Technology). “A robot tax is worth a really close look but not if it stifles investment in innovation that can create more and different jobs.”

The key point is that automation and IDT will change work, not necessarily reduce the requirement for human labour. Indeed, if we believe Made Smarter, it will have a net positive effect on employment, at least in the United Kingdom.

Human workers may only make up ten percent of the work force in Dr Who’s dystopian vision of the future, but in the foreseeable reality, automation will be making jobs for people, not just taking them.

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