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We cannot afford not to have robots

Matti Apunen | 14.1.2016

The history of working life can be simplified as a race between humans and machines: work by humans is perceived as “good”, work by machines as “bad”. Those in the field of the arts, media and sociology like to paint a threatening picture. Machines are faceless, inhuman and create inequality. 

A recent publication by the Research Institute of the Finnish Economy ETLA, Työn murros (“Disruption of Work”), is a refreshing read and an important collection of the latest research results on working life. It approaches the technological disruption and more automated future fairly calmly.

According to the researches at ETLA, machine automation will replace human workers, and this is a welcome development. Some jobs will be lost, but that is acceptable. The future is uncertain, as it has always been.

But isn’t this approach a little harsh and inhuman?

Työn murros (“Disruption of Work”) by Antti Kauhanen, Mika Maliranta, Petri Rouvinen and Vesa Vihriälä is recommended reading for anyone wondering what they might be doing for a living in a decade’s time. It is an excellent depiction of creative disruption, what brings it about and why resistance is futile.

The hundred-page seminal work provides an antidote to the demonization of technology and the much-loved myth that from now on – from this (!) very moment – things will take a permanent turn to the worst.

ETLA has studied the effects of automation and digitalisation on jobs in Finland, estimating that approximately one third of them is in danger of being replaced by machine automation. Or rather: approximately one third of our workforce will get the chance to transfer to jobs with higher productivity.

“The scenarios focusing on the destruction of work are haunted by an idea of a static partial balance of sorts. For the most part, they do not consider that the human work replaced by machines could be useful elsewhere, or that a mass replacement would also change the end market,” writes ETLA’s Research Director Petri Rouvinen.

In the textile industry, industrial revolution reduced the amount of human work required to manufacture a metre of fabric by a whopping 98 per cent. Despite this development, there were four times the number of people working in textile manufacturing in 1900 than in 1830.

How is this possible? It is due to the fact that lower prices expand the total available market, generating new demand.

Although most of its manufacturing lines are now robotic, ABB’s Wiring Accessories unit in Porvoo has not reduced its workforce. The plant has quickly improved its productivity – and not just by a percentage point or two, but by an impressive 40 per cent in five years. In the words of Prime Minister Juha Sipilä, what a productivity leap!

The Kauppalehti commerce newspaper (6.8.2015) interviewed ABB employees who were happy to report a reduction in sick leaves and an increase in job satisfaction because they were freed from mechanical assembly tasks to more interesting and meaningful tasks.

At this stage of digital disruption, both blue-collar and white-collar workers are being replaced. Machine automation is advancing full steam ahead in sectors such as accounting, as is beginning to emerge in the care sector.

Digitalisation opens up new opportunities for aspiring entrepreneurs. It reduces their start-up costs and makes them better equipped to specialise. The downside of this development is that this applies not only to domestic entrepreneurs, but all entrepreneurs globally. Competition will intensify.

At the same time, global digitalisation will increase wealth disparities. This is the price we must pay and the change we must adapt to.

Työn murros absolves technology. Studying the development over hundreds of years, it demonstrates that technical development is of benefit to a large majority of people. While some people will lose their jobs, and some jobs will be lost for good, as consumers, Finns reap all kinds of benefits from the very same digitalisation and robotisation that expose them to intensified levels of competition.

We simply cannot afford not to use robots. 


IMP_Apunen.jpg

Matti Apunen
Director, Finnish Business and Policy Forum EVA


 

 

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