Monday, October 25, 2021
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Carmen Ruiz Viñals

The world of work adapted to the industrial revolution and now it has to do the same with AI

Director of Business Studies at Abat Oliba University CEU

Jeremy Rifkin, in their book "The End of Work: The Decline of the Global Workforce and the Dawn of the Post-Market Era" alerts us that we are beginning a new phase of history, in which the traditional concept of "work" falls into decline. Artificial intelligence, robotics, telecommunications and other forms of high technology are rapidly replacing human labour in most manufacturing, distribution and logistics processes, even reaching the services sector. Rifkin suggests that the great majority of jobs, as we understand them today, are going to disappear. There will be a polarization in the labour market between an elite of highly educated workers who will exercise the control and management functions of the global technological economy, and a large number of workers continuously displaced by new technologies. The author proposes the end of work as the beginning of a new era of civilization.


Without reaching Rifkin’s extremes, it is a fact that unemployment is one of the main problems facing developed economies, and especially the Spanish one, where we urgently need to create employment and of quality at that. Robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) threaten jobs as we know them today, just as it did in the days after the industrial revolution. At that moment, there was a process of technological transformation that brought about an economic and social transformation that began in the second half of the eighteenth century in the United Kingdom, and which extended a few decades later to much of Western Europe and North America, and which concluded between 1820 and 1840. As in any process of change, there were both winners and losers. At that time a social movement, called Luddism, was organized, which was led by English craftsmen against the new machines that destroyed employment.

Robotics already plays an important role

Time has shown that, although there were losers after the first impact of the start of the industrial revolution, the application of technological advances in production processes improved the efficiency and standard of living of society. Technological advances such as the printing press, electricity, radio, telephone, fax, personal computers, cars, tractors, aeroplanes, and so on.., among many other technological innovations that have been applied to production and distribution processes of products and services changed the rules of the economic game, leading to a quantitative and qualitative improvement, both from the economic and social point of view.  

Although the emergence of robotics and AI will be the great technological theme of the future, there are already robots that are well-equipped to function in the working world

The question that arises nowadays in view of the new technological leap that the application of the robotics and the AI implies, with its transforming potential in the way that the work and the production are organized, is, if it will again cause an increase of the productivity and of the standard of living of the total population, or, on the contrary, there will be a mass loss of jobs, increasing social inequality (Cascio, WF, 2013).

Currently, robotics plays a very important role in the proper functioning of Western society and industry. They serve as instruments, which people use to achieve an end, not as an entity in themselves. In the near future, we will have machines (robots) with their own AI that will not need direct instructions from people and will take care of many of the tasks involved in current jobs. There will be robots that will be able to occupy many of the jobs that until now people have done. Robots, which are already very capable today. It sounds very futuristic, and there are even films and series such as "Humans" where this issue is addressed, but it is a matter of the present and not of the future to be faced from the point of view of business, economy, labour law and sociology.

Although the hatching of robotics and AI will be the great technological theme of the future, there are already robots that are well-equipped to work in the world of work. Modern assembly lines are a paradigm. For example, during a visit to the facilities of a factory exporting beer, a group of business management students were amazed at the impact of robotics and AI on the entire production and distribution process, Mechanization in the number of jobs and the quality of the jobs that supervise the processes carried out by the multiple machines. 


The same thing would have happened in any other factory, where physical work is no longer done by people but by robots and AI. Another very apt current example would be the Google driverless car, which already passes the driving test and has become part of the plans of major car manufacturers. If imposed, the whole system of transport of goods and people will clearly be impacted, against which professional groups such as taxi drivers or carriers have already organized themselves.

Once again, there will be winners and losers

Another example would be the application of AI for the writing of press releases: Wordsmith is a platform that produces news and writes 2000 articles per second, mainly mechanical news, such as sports results. We could also mention the application of AI for medical and nursing routines or the application of robotization to the hospitality industry or to hotels, which are beginning to have robot receptionists. The application of robotics to agriculture, among many other uses, is also noteworthy is. Of course, these are just a few examples. Almost any human activity is likely to end up being carried out by robots, if there is an adequate algorithm. It will take more time or less time, but artificial intelligence will eventually be adopted in all its forms in the business world, as it has done since the industrial revolution and with the new technologies of information and communication.

If in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries robotics and AI replaced jobs involving physical power, now it is the turn to routine work

Again, there will be short-term winners and losers. More than half the jobs, as we know them today, are at risk of being taken over by robots and IA (Bruegel think tank, 2016), but this has already been happening since the industrial revolution. Only 1% of the jobs that existed at that time have survived today. In the future, new job opportunities will also arise, new jobs that today we do not know what they are. What we do know is that these jobs that will require as such abilities as social skills, creativity, communication, pro-activity, and so on. From this point on, it is important to promote the emotional intelligence of people and the role that education has to cover in this field, extending to the training of people within the company (Lepak, D. and Gowan, M., 2009).

Innovation and technology will also generate employment

The Global McKenzie Institute (2016) published an interactive table describing the automation potential of the entire working spectrum. While focusing on the US case, it serves to assess how it would affect any developed economy. In addition, the arrival of robotics and AI in our societies is not a process that will affect only low-skilled jobs - managers, doctors and nurses, economists or lawyers are also exposed to an algorithm that could replace a significant part of their current tasks. For example, in the case of economists, there is a robot devised by IBM that is already being used by some offices in the automation of paperwork generated in the office, file search and writing simple reports. Obviously, in the future, economists will be needed, but perhaps not as many as they are today, and they will be dealing with tasks different from the ones they are doing now. The same reasoning could be applied to any of today's professions. If in the nineteenth and twentieth century, robotics and AI replaced jobs involving physical power, now it is the turn of routine jobs.

In the future will also arise new job opportunities, new jobs that we do not know today. What we do know is that these jobs will be jobs that will require both skills and social skills such as creativity, communication, proactivity

In view of this scenario we need historical perspective to analyze current moments. Companies must incorporate the changes into a framework of coexistence between humans and robotics. This will be the key to a good future at the social level where occupying free time will be an important issue. Technology and innovation will be key sectors in creating employment, but so will leisure, tourism and culture. Education, as on many other occasions, will be key to forming the "employability" of people, which will be based not just on technical skills such as knowledge, but also on emotional skills such as communication, perseverance, empathy, ability to work together with equipment, among others. The social, economic and labour world will be different; our adaptation to the change will become a fundamental piece.

Carmen Ruiz Viñales is PhD from Pompeu Fabra University and Senior Fellow in Urban Studies from the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) The Johns Hopkins University (JHU), Baltimore, Maryland, USA. Deputy Director of the Chair of Family Business and Business Development of UAO CEU.



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