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How worried are you about job automation?

17 Sep 2018

A new study released by the Pew Research Center has found that many feel robots and computers will eliminate jobs and increase inequality.

Does the prospect of job automation make you worry about your own livelihood? Are you afraid that emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics will decimate employment figures?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you’re not alone. A new study produced by Pew Research Center, a non-partisan think tank that conducts public opinion polling and demographic research, affirms that there is widespread anxiety about the effects of tech.

Pew attempted to measure the widespread sentiment among “average citizens” towards jobs automation and found, overwhelmingly, that people aren’t happy. “[They] see a revolution coming in the workplace, and they are concerned,” the report states.

Robots will ‘definitely’ take over human jobs

Pew polled people in Greece, Japan, Canada, Argentina, Poland, Brazil, South Africa, Italy, Hungary and the US.

When asked whether they think robots will take over jobs now carried out by humans, the vast majority said that it either “definitely will happen” or “probably will happen”. Per country, the percentage who gave these answers varied from as high as 91pc (Greece) to 65pc (US).

‘In all surveyed countries, the majority of adults said they believe inequality between the rich and the poor will be worsened by job automation’

“Large majorities in each nation surveyed think ordinary people will have a hard time finding jobs as a result of automation,” the report continues. “Relatively few predict new, better-paying jobs will be created by technological advances.”

In all surveyed countries, the majority of adults said they believe inequality between the rich and the poor will be worsened by job automation. In Greece, Argentina and Japan, as many as eight in 10 people believe this.

In most of the countries surveyed, the majority of people polled were not optimistic about automation making the economy more efficient. Poland, Hungary and Japan are noted exceptions, with the latter reporting the highest amount of people who believe in the efficiency-boosting effects of job automation (74pc).

The relative optimism in Japan is interesting, given it is arguably the most AI-driven economy of all of those surveyed. In Japan, there are more than 300 installed industrial robots for every 10,000 workers in manufacturing facilities.

Who should help?

For most countries, the majority of people think that the government shoulders responsibility for ensuring that workers are prepared for the workforce of the future. The one exception here is the US, where only 35pc of those surveyed expressed that sentiment. The majority of US people surveyed (72pc) believe that the onus is on the individual themselves to be ready for the workforce of the future. You could possibly read this as aligning with a political outlook that favours small government and a sense of individualism.

‘It cannot be denied that even if there is a productivity boost, the jobs market will change and someone is bound to lose out’

In every country except Japan, the majority also believe that schools have a huge role to play in preparing people for the future of work. Though in many cases there was still a majority in favour, ‘employers’ proved the least popular answer to the question of who should prepare employees.

Should you be worried?

Many researchers say that the widespread anxiety about job automation is unfounded. If anything, they argue, automation will boost productivity and create more jobs, as it has always done historically.

Yet the world of today feels unique. AI is one of the most transformative technologies since electricity, according to researchers such as Andrew Ng.

It also cannot be denied that even if there is a productivity boost, the jobs market will change and someone is bound to lose out. Just as certain skills will become more valuable, other skills will become less valuable. There may be net job gains, but there is bound to be at least one job title that fades into obsolescence. While researchers may urge people to look at the ‘bigger picture’ and the reward to the economy at large, that will mean little to the truck driver who loses his livelihood to an autonomous vehicle.

On top of that, rising inequality has really changed the stakes. Yes, people have historically weathered automation, but that was before. Now, we are in a time in which many argue that the disparity between the rich and the poor is worse than ever.

So, maybe people should be worried. It’s hard to say. The conclusion to this kind of speculation always has to be a pretty dissatisfying one: we just don’t know yet.

We do know, however, that people are worried, judging by Pew’s research. We either need to allay that fear if it is unjustified or address the concerns if it is.

You can read the Pew Research Center’s report in full here.

Eva Short
By Eva Short

Eva Short was a journalist at Silicon Republic, specialising in the areas of tech, data privacy, business, cybersecurity, AI, automation and future of work, among others.

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