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Will robots push us out of work?

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Autonomous cars may have a whiff of science fiction about them, but they are coming all the same. The implication for the jobs market is obvious – what will happen to people who drive for a living?

But this is just one example, robotics has already transformed the manufacturing process, but robots are set to do so by even more. The Internet of Things (IoT) is creating data from sensors providing readings from millions of devices. There was a time when these readings were collected manually – they are still in many cases. Not only can the IoT provide this information with limited manual intervention, it does so way more effectively.

The list of examples of how technology may destroy jobs are long in number.

On the other hand, history tells us that automation creates new jobs.

The industrial revolution transformed the way we made clothes, for example, with innovation in spinning and weaving, such as the Arkwright’s Water Frame, yet the revolution also created new jobs.

Innovation creates new opportunity.

Blacksmiths, whose main task may have been to re-shoe horses, lost out to the rise of the motor car, but car mechanics fulfilled a similar role. The horse was replaced by the motor car, this may well have hit the horse rearing business hard, but the jobs created in the manufacturing of cars surely greatly exceeded the number of lost jobs in the horse business.

Will robots push us out of work? It depends on what we mean by robots – a vacuum cleaner is form of robot, so is a washing machine – and clearly such innovations led to lost jobs in the domestic cleaning business. But this did not mean mass unemployment, displaced workers found new employment, which often turned out to be better paid.

Computers are great labour saving devices – they led to the end of typing pools, for example. But the computer industry has been a big employer too, and a very well paid employer at that.

But there are reasons to think that this time around, the end result may be different. For one thing, while history tells us that innovation destroys but also creates jobs, there are always time lags in between.  However, today new innovations are occurring at a pace that has no precedent, technology may destroy jobs, but before people have a chance to recover and move into a new area, new innovations may destroy the jobs in this area.

Another issue is the sheer scope of innovation. It is common to talk about robots pushing us out of work, but big data and AI may be bigger threats. Big data provides information that in a different time we may have determined manually – even doctors will find that their jobs change, big data providing a wealth of readings of a patient’s health, combined with the result of genome sequencing, combined with AI, a doctor may no longer be needed to diagnose illnesses.

To quote from the book iDisrupted, by Michael Baxter and John Straw: “While we may see automation cause a loss of jobs, we may see the creation of new jobs, following a cottage industry style format, in which local designers tailor-make products to the requirements of each customer. There was a time when every village had its blacksmith. The industrial revolution destroyed this worthy profession. The next one may create the 21st century equivalent of the blacksmith: designers/craftspeople/3D printing experts creating bespoke products for a local market. So, net job losses may not be the result of new technology, but disruption in the labour market will undoubtedly result.”

What jobs will robots destroy, and what jobs are likely to be safe? A report by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne may provide the answer.  The report was called ‘The future of employment: how susceptible are jobs to computerisation?’ Once again, quoting from iDisrupted; “Frey and Osborne suggest that the type of jobs most likely to be replaced by computers and robots are jobs involving manual dexterity, finger dexterity, and working in cramped spaces. They say jobs that involve a high level of social intelligence are less likely to be disrupted. Occupations that are likely to be safer include those which involve developing ideas, originality, negotiation, social perceptiveness, and assisting or caring for others.

“They are very specific too. They suggest that the type of job that is most likely to be done by machines is telemarketing. Other jobs that sit high in their list of occupations they identify as likely to be replaced by technology include insurance appraisers, insurance underwriters, and tax preparers. On the other hand, occupational therapists, mental health counsellors, healthcare social workers and teachers seem quite safe from disruption.”




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